House of Lords
Wednesday 23 September 2020
The House met in a hybrid proceeding.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Worcester.
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.
China: Uighur Internment Camps
My Lords, there are reports of torture and overcrowding in detention centres in Xinjiang, where over a million Uighurs are extrajudicially detained. We have repeatedly condemned the abuses of human rights perpetrated against the Uighurs in Xinjiang and again call upon China to immediately allow UN observers unfettered access to the region and to end extrajudicial detention.
I thank the Minister for his reply. The International Olympic Committee’s charter states that its goal is to
“place sport at the centre of harmonious development … with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”
Given that the Chinese Communist Party’s treatment of the Muslim Uighur minority in Xinjiang contravenes the principles of preserving human dignity, will the Government consider holding the IOC to account by pushing for a review of its decision to hold the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in the People’s Republic of China?
My Lords, as the right reverend Prelate will know, any representation to the IOC would be a matter for the National Olympic Committee. The British Olympic Association operates independently of the Government. However, ensuring human dignity should be the approach of the Olympic committee or, indeed, any Government.
My Lords, I am co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group. Does the Minister acknowledge the strength of feeling of people of all faiths on this matter? Will the Government persist in opposing the crimes of blasphemy and apostasy around the world, particularly in the case of Mubarak Bala, a humanist arrested for blasphemy in Nigeria?
My Lords, the noble Lord will now be very familiar with the China Tribunal’s conclusions on the forced removal of organs from the Uighurs and others. Are the Government now taking this report seriously? Are the Magnitsky sanctions being considered for those who may be involved in this appalling practice?
My Lords, on the noble Baroness’s second point, I cannot speculate on designations. On the organ harvesting report, I have, as she knows, met with Sir Geoffrey Nice. We have also carefully considered the group’s report of 1 March. That report contains numerous disturbing allegations of serious human rights abuses, including sexual violence, torture, and forced DNA testing. After reviewing the situation this morning, I have again written formally to the World Health Organization
My Lords, the appalling treatment of the Uighur Muslims by the Chinese regime is horrific. Yet China is expected to be re-elected to the Human Rights Council next month. Sadly, it seems that nothing can be done to halt the increasingly sinister influence of China within UN structures, seriously undermining the UN’s credibility. Will the Minister confirm that China is continuing to block the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights from having a presence in China? Will he also confirm that we will not support China’s election to the Human Rights Council?
My Lords, on the issue of election to the Human Rights Council, I assure my noble friend we consider carefully all countries’ policies on standing up for human rights both internationally and domestically. On his earlier point, I spoke with High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet last week, and we have made the point directly to her that we continue to lobby for her unfettered access in Xinjiang.
In terms of the UN machinery generally, the United Kingdom has led on two statements—the only joint statements at the UN on Xinjiang—once last year and once this year in June at the Human Rights Council. I am intending to raise the issue in the UK’s national statement at the 45th session of the UNHRC, which is scheduled shortly.
My Lords, I should mention I am vice-chairman of the all-party group on the Uighurs.
In the light of the near impossibility of arriving at a legal determination of alleged genocide or crimes against humanity in the Uyghur region, which Ministers in the other place have acknowledged, will the Minister join me in welcoming the new initiative of Sir Geoffrey Nice QC in setting up the Uighur tribunal? Will he confirm that the Government will do everything possible to co-operate with the tribunal, including providing evidence and agreeing to take seriously what will be a rigorous and impartial judgment when the process is completed?
My Lords, I welcome the fact that the Minister has written to the WHO about forced organ harvesting. But it is not enough to write with the evidence; there needs to be concrete evidence. Would he argue with the WHO that this so-called self-assessment process needs to end, and that there ought to be independent verification of the harvesting of organs? Also, will he commit the Government to support my noble friend Lord Hunt and the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, in making changes to the medicines Bill, which can address this issue and have concrete action to end this awful practice?
My Lords, on the latter issue of the medicines Bill, that will be discussed in your Lordships’ House; however, as a domestic piece of legislation, I do not think it is the right instrument with which to be looking at this issue, which is about international action. As for the World Health Organization, as I have said, we have taken steps. I will also seek a meeting with it to see what action can be taken. The evidence base is building, and it is clear that, if proven true, the abuses will be there for all to see. It is now important for the World Health Organization to consider the evidence carefully.
My Lords, returning to the original Question: could the Minister tell us what it would require for Her Majesty’s Government to analyse the treatment of the Uighurs as a potential genocide, and what it would take for them to raise that internationally?
My Lords, as I have already said, as well as raising this internationally, we are raising concerns bilaterally and directly, as my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has done, with the Chinese Foreign Secretary and State Councillor. We are also raising this through multilateral fora, through the third committee at the UN and the Human Rights Council. On the specific definition of genocide, the noble Baroness is aware of the Government’s position that this is something for tribunals or judicial authorities to assess.
My Lords, China has shown a callous disregard for the human rights of minority ethnic groups over a number of years. The evidence is now clearly overwhelming. Does the Minister not agree that the time is now right to instigate Magnitsky sanctions against those who perpetrate these indefensible wrongs against their own citizens? Words are clearly ineffective—this is time for decisive action.
My Lords, as I have already said, I cannot speculate on future designations, but I am pleased that we have now initiated, through my right honourable friend’s efforts, a formal procedure through the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime, to ensure that those who abuse human rights are held to account.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that states that do not live by basic international human rights standards should not have unfettered access to international trade markets? Is he aware of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which was recently passed by the US House of Representatives? Do Her Majesty’s Government have plans for similar legislation to be introduced here in the United Kingdom?
My Lords, my noble friend raises an important point. She will also be aware that it was through our support and initiation of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 and our support for the evidence taken by a particular inquiry in Australia that we saw many companies changing their approach to trade initiatives, particularly in Xinjiang. We are looking at the US legislation carefully, and whatever the outcome of those discussions, I will write to my noble friend.
My Lords, the tragedy of this is that we have seen it before—these steps towards genocide. It is even more tragic that the United Nations is impotent due to the position of China. The only thing I believe the Government can do is publish a list of those brands to which it is thought forced labour by the Uighurs is contributing and call on the population to boycott those brands and hopefully prevent their import.
Trade: Trans-Pacific Partnership
My Lords, accession to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership is a government priority and a key part of our trade negotiations programme. We aim to begin formal accession negotiations next year. Any final decision to apply will consider both the progress of bilateral negotiations with CPTPP members and our confidence that we will be able to negotiate accession on terms compatible with the UK’s broader interests and domestic priorities.
I thank the Minister for his Answer. Can he tell the House when he expects CPTPP members Australia, New Zealand and Canada, which are also our Five Eyes partners, to support our membership and sign trade deals with us? Also, I welcome the deal with Japan. There is a chapter on SMEs, an ambition I understand the UK has for all other FTAs negotiated. This will help our innovative small businesses break into new markets, but sadly, the Government’s ambition for our global exports is more disappointing. Germany currently exports 47% of GDP, so why are the UK Government happy to set a low bar of just 35% for our exports?
My noble friend makes very good points. In terms of engagement so far with CPTPP members, the Trade Secretary met with ambassadors and high commissioners to discuss this, had a warm response and recently opened the first meeting between the UK and CPTPP officials to discuss preparations for the UK’s application to join the group. I will take up his point about exports with my colleague the Minister for Exports.
My Lords, since the Government are in the process of reneging on the withdrawal agreement that they freely entered into, how can Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the other members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership have faith that this Government will abide by any agreement they make to become a member?
My Lords, the British Government take their responsibilities under agreements very seriously. Sometimes, special circumstances arise where they have to take a view on the matters in the agreement, but I assure the noble Lord that we will adhere strictly to any free trade agreement that we sign.
My Lords, what assessment have the Government made of any implications for UK intellectual property rights? What progress have they made in the establishment of a utility trade platform, which would truly enable us to be a 21st-century, global, electronically based trading nation?
My Lords, the UK will ensure that any future accession talks with the CPTPP are consistent with the UK’s interests and the Government’s stated policies and priorities. We will not make changes to our intellectual property regime that are in any way detrimental to ourselves.
My Lords, we on these Benches are enthusiastic for UK businesses to utilise any expanded opportunities to export to the CPTPP countries in future, but this is the future, and what we face over the next couple of months, according to the DIT website this morning, is the fact that the UK will be trading on a free trade basis with only 8% of all UK trade—the worst record for the UK since the 1930s. Does the Minister agree that that will be disastrous for British exporters in the current economic climate and a very weak basis to look for further opportunities around the world?
My Lords, the Government are very keen to reach agreement with the European Union because of the importance that the noble Lord refers to; we are still working very hard on that. We have plenty of other trading partners around the world. If that agreement is not reached, we will trade on WTO terms with the EU. I think that there will be a bright future for this country in any event.
My Lords, I congratulate the Government on not only obtaining the treaty with Japan but getting Japan’s support for our membership of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The partnership contains quite significant provisions in relation to state subsidy, competition and investor remedies. Does my noble friend think that these will be insuperable barriers to our membership?
I thank my noble friend for her question. Of course, we will accede to the CPTPP only if we are happy that the arrangements we are acceding to are in the UK’s interest. We are confident that we will be able to reach that position with its members.
My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that we face two spheres of internet governance at the moment: one controlled by authoritarian regimes, rife with surveillance; and the other, western, free and accessible to all? Does he therefore agree that, alongside the CPTPP, another priority should be digital FTAs with Japan, Australia and India?
My Lords, in the recent agreement in principle with Japan that we were so pleased to reach, there is an extensive data and digital services chapter that we hope will be a model for our future free trade agreements. The points made by the noble Baroness are important and are always in our mind when we negotiate these agreements.
My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the CPTPP contains ISDS clauses? Given that the Secretary of State described this as an
“advanced agreement full of countries committed to the rules of international trade”,
why do the Government believe it necessary to provide secretive ISDS structures when we and the current members are in good standing and have perfectly adequate legal systems?
My Lords, the UK will ensure that any future accession talks with the CPTPP are consistent with our interests and our stated policies and priorities. We are clear that our future investment policy will continue to protect our right to regulate in the public interest and we will ensure that UK investors abroad receive the same high standard of treatment that foreign investors receive in the United Kingdom.
My Lords, there are some incompatibilities between the withdrawal agreement and the principles of the CPTPP, such as protection of traditional names for wine under Article 58.2. Those would require a carve-out. Has an assessment been made of how many carve-outs might be necessary to fit UK law into such areas as food safety and how many could be tolerated by CPTPP members?
My Lords, because we have not entered into negotiations on this agreement yet, it is hard to predict exactly how they will progress, but we are clear that more trade will not compromise our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards.
My Lords, picking up on the theme of the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, in wishing otherwise, I would not invest in the Pacific Alliance countries, having listened to a briefing of somewhat negative messaging about that region from our resident ambassadors. Knowing the opportunities that exist, will the Minister sit with his colleagues in government and agree to a sea change in approach that focuses on opportunities for a global Britain, which will need alliances with emerging and frontier markets—of which there are plenty in the Pacific Alliance, which additionally forms a useful springboard for such organisations as Mercosur, for example?
My Lords, the CPTPP is one of the largest free trade areas in the world. It represented 13% of global GDP in 2018, which would increase to more than 16% if the UK were to join. It is one of the world’s premier growth interests and we consider that it is very much in the interests of the United Kingdom to be part of it.
In the event that we are successful and negotiate a deal with the CPTPP, or individually with Australia, New Zealand and Canada, what will be the parliamentary oversight and scrutiny of that agreement? Will the Government follow the procedure set out so effectively by Henry Dimbleby in part one of his national food strategy?
Education: A-level Results
My Lords, the independent qualifications regulator, Ofqual, is responsible for securing qualification standards and promoting public confidence in regulated qualifications. As part of the development of the grading system introduced in place of exams this summer, Ofqual drew on the advice of experts from the exam boards and convened an external group of well-respected assessment experts to advise on the principles, main features and details of various aspects of the standardisation model.
My Lords, expert advice early on identified the algorithm as flawed and particularly damaging for state school and disadvantaged pupils. We have been told that the Secretary of State was fully in charge of his department throughout this debacle, yet two senior officials have resigned, which is outrageous. When I tabled this Question four weeks ago, I thought that he might have fallen on his sword by now—but no. So can the Minister confirm that the Conservative Government, with the exception of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen, have abandoned the principles of ministerial honour and responsibility?
My Lords, on the standardisation model, Ofqual is a non-departmental body. It is important in principle that our examinations are not subject to government interference. While the department was in contact with Ofqual during this process, the decisions made on the algorithm were Ofqual’s. That respects the appropriate relationship between a department and independent bodies such as Ofqual.
Algorithms were a failure this year; they will not happen next year. Today, there are thousands of students—possibly even hundreds of thousands of students—who are not at school because of the lack of testing. On Monday, Liverpool University Technical College had to send home all year 10, year 11 and year 12 children—hundreds of children, who may be out for 10 days. This will happen all over the school estate. There will not be a level playing field of attendance records for students, and it will not be their fault. It is therefore very unfair to test them by written exams next year, because each student will have a different level of attendance. The Government should recognise that teacher assessment will be needed this year, in which case they should issue guidance to teachers now on the state of reports they will have to keep on each student, not only on attendance but on progress. If written exams happen next year, the brightest children will do well and the disadvantaged will do very badly. That is simply not fair.
My Lords, every Tuesday, the department publishes attendance data. As of yesterday, nearly 88% of students in state-funded schools and institutions were in school. The guidance published before the summer holidays made it clear to schools that by the end of this month they must be able to stand up remote education in the eventuality that pupils are sent home in these circumstances. We are working with Ofqual, which is looking at the arrangements for next year’s examinations.
My Lords, the algorithm for predicting A-level results this summer was clearly too harsh, leading to overcompensation using teacher predictions and subsequent difficulty finding college and university places in subjects such as medicine. If the physical sitting of exams again proves impossible this summer, will the Minister ensure that the timetable for publishing results allows more time for the better matching of teacher and improved algorithm predictions with the availability of places in higher education?
My Lords, on the important issue of the placing of students—particularly for A-levels, which are more often progression exams—the noble Lord will be aware that the Government, working closely with higher education institutions, lifted the cap on certain courses to raise capacity. The most recent figures are that 89% of students who received a grade increase have got their original offer, their insurance offer or an offer at an institution with the same tariff as their original offer.
My Lords, the most frustrating element of the algorithm was that it assumed that schools could not improve on previous years’ best performance. That seems contrary to what any Education Minister should believe about the power of schools to improve and change children’s lives. Did that element of the algorithm come from an external expert? If so, why was it accepted?
My Lords, as the noble Baroness will be aware, Ofqual consulted on the methodology and what aspects to include in the algorithm. The issue of what we termed “outliers”—highly performing students in institutions which have previously not performed well—was raised and was in the balance; students who might be affected in that way could be put right through the appeals processes. However, when the balance became such that the level of anomalies outweighed this, the more just situation became to use teacher assessment grades rather than the algorithm to assess grades.
My Lords, all four nations of the United Kingdom attempted to use this method. At the moment, the Office for Statistics Regulation, which is part of the UK Statistics Authority, is looking at the algorithms used for all four nations. However, it is intended that exams will go ahead this summer.
My Lords, the Secretary of State, the Department for Education and Ofqual were all warned by Cambridge Assessment of serious flaws in the grading of exams two weeks before A-level results were published, yet no action was taken. Much more seriously, the Royal Statistical Society has said that the issues with the algorithm could have been avoided had independent expert advice been taken. As far back as April, the society highlighted to Ofqual the problems coming down the road and suggested the establishment of an advisory panel involving independent statisticians to deal with them. Can the Minister explain to the hundreds of thousands of young people whose lives and education have been disrupted unnecessarily why that course of action was not taken?
My Lords, a member of the RSS was present on the expert advisory group at Ofqual, which I have already outlined. Ofqual tested 12 different models of the algorithm. During the algorithm’s development, there were various meetings between the department and Ofqual, and we were assured that any irregularities in its application could be put right through an appeals process. We responded when an issue arose in Scotland around its use of an algorithm.
My Lords, will the Government conduct research into the extraordinarily large difference between predicted grades and actual grades at A-level, so that we can understand why deprived children fall below predicted grades so often and do something about it?
My Lords, there was a rise of about 12% in the top grades awarded this summer. We are not in a position to go behind the teacher assessment grades. The only appeal available to students is on the basis of administrative error in giving those teacher-assessed grades to the exam boards.
I draw noble Lords’ attention to my relevant interests in the register as an adviser to a decision science company. Does the Minister agree that the approach taken to determine the outcome of this year’s A-level results clearly demonstrates that using an algorithm or human expert judgment in isolation is flawed, and that highly complicated decision-making by government needs to embrace decision science, which seeks to exploit the right balance of artificial intelligence and human judgment?
My Lords, in relation to the involvement of human decision and algorithms, I have outlined the current investigation into the algorithm, but I will take back what the noble and gallant Lord says, because at the moment we in the department are at the juncture of Ofqual having consulted on the timing of exams next year.
My Lords, universities have the challenge of speedily picking up the pieces at the end of this sorry episode. Can the Minister tell us how the Government plan to support universities ahead of next year’s admissions cycle to ensure that the year 13 students from this year, who have already faced Covid disruption, are not further disadvantaged by places already being filled by students who had to defer this year?
My Lords, we are grateful to the many staff behind the scenes in the admissions departments of universities who have managed to achieve the statistic I outlined previously. My colleague Minister Donelan is working with the higher education task force, which works closely with the universities. There are discussions around capacity of places for next year and particular concern about any delay in exams. Ofqual has been consulting on this to make sure that discussions are ongoing in the other section of the system, which is the admissions process.
Schools: Spending per Pupil
My Lords, we are investing more in schools over the next three years, starting with an additional £2.6 billion this year and rising to £7.1 billion by 2022-23, compared to 2019-20. This will ensure that per pupil funding for every school can rise at least in line with inflation this year, and faster than inflation for most. The IFS has said that this investment will near enough restore schools’ per pupil funding to previous levels in real terms.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that Answer, but schools in England have suffered the most severe funding cut in 40 years, with the biggest brunt falling on secondary schools in areas with the lowest 20% of incomes. School spending has decreased by around £1,000 per pupil over the past 10 years, and even the extra £7.1 billion which the Minister just mentioned will not reverse those cuts; there will still be a 1% in gap in funding since 2010. I should say that 1% equates to around £500 million per year.
With the Covid catch-up fund due to be spread across all schools, regardless of disadvantage, I ask the Minister when the Government’s commitment to levelling up educational opportunity will be translated into a greater targeting of additional funding to schools in more deprived areas, and a real increase in funding per pupil.
My Lords, the national funding formula obviously takes deprivation into account, and 18% of that formula—£6.2 billion—is aimed at disadvantaged students. That is in addition to any supplementary funding such as that for music hubs, which is also directed funding to free school meal areas. There is also, in the catch-up fund, the £350 million national tutoring programme, aimed at disadvantaged students. Some of the figures that the noble Lord outlines, in relation to schools in the most deprived areas, relate to the fact that the most deprived students are now spread across more areas of the country. That is why there has been a decrease in funding in some of the most deprived areas, because the most deprived students—for whom the funding is there—are spread more evenly across the country. Therefore, the funding formula has taken that into account.
My Lords, I welcome the IFS report, which clearly outlines that the recent and future strategy for education spending in England was on track to deliver the Government’s commitment to level up poorer regions of the country and to narrow the achievement gap between children from rich and poor families. However, the closure of schools during lockdown, and the need to restructure both teaching timetables and physical resources, is creating immense challenges for schools, which I particularly understand as a previous chair of a large academy in a deprived area in Plymouth.
I welcome the extra provision that the Government have already committed in recognition of the difficulties ahead for pupils and staff this year—but is it enough? Could the Minister inform the House whether additional funds will be announced, in the forthcoming spending review, for sixth-form pupils to accelerate their learning where cuts had been significant in previous years? Will there be a capital investment programme to return school buildings to at least a satisfactory or good condition, which the National Audit Office estimated in 2017 would cost in the region of £6.7 billion?
My Lords, in relation to the particular challenges—I mentioned those attendance statistics, and one cannot underestimate the effort made in our schools to get attendance at that level. In relation to 16 to 19 year-olds, £96 million of the national tutoring programme fund is aimed at disadvantaged students in that year group, and an extra £400 million is going into 16 to 19 funding. Indeed, we should in the autumn get the list of the first 50 schools that will be rebuilt under the repair programme. Over the last five years, £23 billion has gone into the school estate. The noble Baroness is correct that we need to accelerate the building programme, not only to give our children the buildings they need to learn in but to motivate the economy and the recovery that we need.
My Lords, the House will have become familiar with the many government pronouncements of overwhelming investment in education and public services. Equally, the House will have noted the persistent and alarming social divisions shamefully ever increasing in the fifth-largest economy in the world. With the Government’s levelling-up agenda and intention to close the gap between students from wealthy backgrounds and those who battle an onslaught of socioeconomic conditions—poor housing, poverty, racial and religious discrimination, and now the digital divide—what additional resources have the Government allocated to meet these challenges? Does the forward strategy include increasing the recruitment, retention and promotion of teachers from minority communities in leadership positions, which remains unacceptably low?
My Lords, in relation to the issues that the noble Baroness outlined, the Government are obviously concerned about the attainment gap and are trying to ensure that students from disadvantaged backgrounds have the opportunity of a great education. That is why £2.4 billion has gone into the system as pupil premium money for those students. At the moment, we have spent £100 million on remote education, and in addition to the 220,000 laptops that have been distributed, another 150,000 are being delivered to ensure that we can help schools, particularly in those areas with disadvantaged students, if they have to learn at home. As I have outlined, the national funding formula prioritises the most deprived students, and a significant proportion of that money goes to them.
BAME teachers are part of the recruitment strategy. In relation to governors, we are now making it a KPI of the forthcoming contract subject to spending review that they should be able to achieve targets for BAME representation in the governing of our schools.
My Lords, schools might be saving money on the large number of children being home educated, many of whom then miss out on proper education entirely and are vulnerable to being caught up in county lines and criminal gangs. What are the Government doing to enable proper standards in, and preferably to register, home education?
My Lords, the noble Baroness may be aware that, before the pandemic, the Government had consulted on precisely that issue of whether to have a register for the local authority of those who are home educated. There will be in the coming months, when it is appropriate, a response to that consultation. At the moment, the teams on the ground are in contact with local authorities, and we have made it clear to local authorities that we want as much data as possible on trends in home education. We are advising local authorities to make clear to any parents thinking of opting for home education, although it is their right, the responsibility and obligation that this is. Delivering home education is very different from supervising at home the curriculum delivered by schools, and we recognise the safeguarding issues for many children if they are electively home educated but are then not actually being educated.
Private Notice Question
Her Majesty’s Treasury set NS&I an annual target of net financing to raise. In July, this was revised from the £6 billion set at the Budget to £35 billion to support the Government’s higher financing requirement. NS&I reviews the interest rates on its products regularly and recommended a reduction in interest rates, with the objective of meeting its financing target, while returning to a more normal market position.
My Lords, I declare my interest as an optimistic holder of Premium Bonds. NS&I’s decision to cut interest rates drastically to near zero was a direct consequence, as my noble friend has just said, of the Government’s net financing target—a devastating decision for millions of savers who find their income decimated, or worse. NS&I is a key source of government borrowing but has a broader mission. I quote from its annual report:
“We want to inspire a stronger savings culture”.
That objective is out of the window. Earlier this year, a decision to reduce interest rates was reversed. Will the Government now enable NS&I to reverse this latest decision before it comes into effect in November?
My Lords, perhaps I should also declare my interest as a holder of NS&I savings products. I can understand people’s disappointment at the rate reductions. I reassure my noble friend that the prize fund rate for Premium Bonds, at 1%, even after the reductions, remains competitive relative to the savings market. I remind him that although NS&I has a remit to encourage a savings culture, it also has to balance that against providing value for money for the taxpayer and its position and effect on the broader financial services sector.
I will deviate slightly from NS&I, important though that institution is to millions of British savers. Noble Lords will know that for various reasons a sizable number of people find it impossible to save at all. One in three adults had no savings at the onset of Covid, and one in four families had less than £100. Step Change estimates that 4 million people took on £6 billion of personal debt in the first months of the crisis—an average of £1,500 each. That figure is likely to grow as we enter a second wave. Does the Minister agree that, important as it is to consider the specifics of incentivising savings, we must give broader consideration to how we enable everyone to have a degree of financial resilience? With the furlough scheme due to be wound up within weeks, what steps are the Government taking to prevent those with no financial fallback experiencing serious hardship in the coming months?
My Lords, the noble Lord is correct to say that we need to help those on low incomes to save, so that they have a buffer if they face unexpected financial events. That is why we have introduced Help to Save, a government-backed savings account that offers a 50% bonus on savings of up to £50 a month for those in receipt of working tax credits or universal credit, with a weekly earnings equivalent to at least 16 times the national living wage. Returning to National Savings and Investments, one of the other benefits of NS&I accounts, including Premium Bonds, is the low level of savings, at £25, with which people can start those accounts and access those rates.
My Lords, I have savings products with NS&I and was stunned yesterday morning to get an email announcing savage cuts to its rates. Every bank will now cut its offers in light of the NS&I decision, leaving millions of small savers with essentially zero returns. As the noble Lord, Lord Young, said, the rate cut rests at the door of the Treasury because it sets the funding target for NS&I. Does the Minister accept that this will destroy confidence and make savers even more reluctant to spend? It is an act of self-harm for an economy already in free-fall.
My Lords, I disagree with the noble Baroness that the decision on NS&I interest rates will have an impact on interest rates in the wider market. It is partly because NS&I rates were so out of line with the wider market that this decision was taken. I should also point out that the interest rate decision was taken in light of the Government’s net financing target, which was increased from £6 billion to £35 billion in response to the pandemic.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend for tabling this Question. After 12 years of miserly returns, surely, we need to encourage savers rather than punish them. Banks do not need savers’ money. In the current environment, might the Government consider “corona bonds” to help finance the current emergency spending and demonstrate that they believe in a savings culture?
In effect, customers’ deposits with NS&I are a form of government borrowing and could be interpreted in that way. The increase in the financing remit for NS&I has allowed it to offer those products to many more people without exceeding that remit. However, we have reached a difficult moment whereby it is on track to grossly exceed that remit if action is not taken. However, the Government want to encourage savings and that is why, over recent years, we have taken the vast majority of savers out of paying tax on their savings. We will of course continue to look at what more we can do.
My Lords, surely NS&I interest rates should roughly reflect market rates for different amounts and terms if government policy is to offer a modest premium over market rates to encourage saving. The proposed cuts look to take NS&I rates below market rates. They are too large and will damage saving. Is wanting to inspire a stronger savings culture still government policy?
I assure my noble friend that that is still government policy, but I disagree with him on the fact that the changes to NS&I’s interest rates take it below competitive rates in the market. As I have pointed out, on premium bonds, a 1% prize fund rate is extremely competitive while on a number of other tax-free instant access products, the rates remain in line with the rest of the market.
My Lords, I must start with a disclosure. Many years ago, I invested what to me was a substantial sum of money in NS&I. We are now seeing the rates go down to well below 1%—indeed, to a fraction of 1%. Is it going to stop there? Will the Government look at negative rates? If not, will they make a clear commitment to move away from them? How much of that target of £35 billion has been achieved? Is there likely to be more than just that target? If so, will there be any return to those people who are dependent on National Savings?
In response to my noble friend’s question about whether the net financing target is due to be exceeded, I can tell him that in quarter 1 of the 2020-21 financial year, NS&I saw an inflow of £19.9 billion and delivered £14.5 billion of net financing. Demand for NS&I products has remained at similarly high levels during Q2. If the current trajectory continues, it will be on track vastly to exceed that net financing target.
My Lords, the Minister seems to have felt the need to disagree with almost all the noble Lords who have spoken. In particular, she disagreed with my noble friend Lady Kramer, who suggested that the impact of the NS&I cuts—[Interruption.] I am extremely sorry for that interruption; it was possibly from a website trying to sell me bonds because I have been looking up NS&I activities. My noble friend Lady Kramer suggested that the cuts in NS&I rates would have a knock-on effect. The Minister disagreed. However, as that website has just pointed out, other banks have followed suit with their products in trying to match the NS&I higher rates. The fact that they are now being cut is likely to have a knock-on effect. Surely the Government cannot claim that they want to have a savings culture any longer.
My Lords, I also expressed sympathy with those savers, including many noble Lords, who have been affected by the decision to change the interest rates. It is not an easy decision but I have tried to explain to noble Lords that the Government take several factors into account in this decision. One of them is the interests of savers. Premium bonds continue to offer a market-leading rate for those savers. However, that must be balanced against the need to protect the interests of taxpayers and the broader financial services sector.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Young on securing this Question. Like him, I declare my interest as a holder of NS&I products. There is a particular cohort that has not been raised, and that is pensioners and others living on fixed incomes. After having saved all their lives to have a top-up on those fixed incomes, they will be devastated. Will my noble friend consider something like that put forward by my noble friend Lady Altmann: a form of corona bond for pensioners?
Parliamentary Works Estimates Commission
My Lords, this Motion appoints the Lords Members of the Parliamentary Works Estimates Commission, the two names having been nominated by the House of Lords Commission. I beg to move.
Civil Procedure (Amendment No. 4) (Coronavirus) Rules 2020
Motion for an humble Address
That a Motion for an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the Civil Procedure (Amendment No. 4) (Coronavirus) Rules 2020, laid before the House on 17 July, be annulled because they will permit evictions of individuals who have been served a notice of eviction between 23 March and 28 August before Parliament has had an opportunity to debate the impact of the Rules on (1) homelessness, and (2) the spread of COVID-19 (SI 2020/751).
Relevant document: 24th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee
My Lords, in the last general election this Government promised to scrap Section 21 evictions—evictions that are mandatory and require no explanation from the landlord. In March, the Government promised that
“no renter who has lost income due to coronavirus will be forced out of their home”.
This Motion, with your Lordships’ support, will achieve those objectives—those two promises from this Government—for thousands of renters who face the pandemic second wave and a bleak winter.
I thank all Peers who have joined me in discussions about this debate in advance. I recognise that this afternoon we may well tour a multitude of issues faced by both tenants and landlords, and many valid points will be made, but I urge Peers to comment on the significant loophole as a result of this statutory instrument, namely the Civil Procedure (Amendment No. 4) (Coronavirus) Rules 2020, laid before Parliament on 17 July. Its welcome baby sister, the Coronavirus Act 2020 (Residential Tenancies: Protection from Eviction) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2020, was laid on 28 August, introducing six-month notice periods for tenants, unless there are serious issues such as domestic violence and anti-social behaviour or significant rent arrears.
My only question to the Minister today is: why can we not explore methods to apply longer notice periods to ensure parity between those served notice before and after 29 August? This request was shared with the Government yesterday, and I gave the Minister notice of it this morning. I hope that he will answer this specific question. The letter sent to all Peers by the Government yesterday dwelled almost entirely on the second statutory instrument, not the first, which is the subject of today’s debate.
As a result of this identified loophole, an estimated 55,000 households, according to Generation Rent, will not have six months’ notice, so if a landlord served a Section 21 notice to their tenant during the height of lockdown, they could be coming to the end of their tenancy now. Indeed, many notices served at the height of the pandemic have already expired, or the best-case scenario is three months’ notice.
I have asked many parliamentary Questions about how many people will be impacted by this loophole. The MHCLG has answered each request for data with verbal claims of “unprecedented packages”, instead of answering my questions. It has put some data out on Twitter suggesting that the official statistics show that only 3,022 private and social sector landlords applied to the courts for possession of their property between April and June. Perhaps the MHCLG should heed the warning of the Ministry of Justice, which says that
“the data is unlikely to be representative of general trends in possession actions.”
Most Peers involved in this debate will be only too well aware that tenants subject to a Section 21 eviction rarely make it to court, knowing that it is mandatory, requires no explanation from the landlord, has no discretionary role for the judges and leaves the tenant with the bill to pay for both the landlord and themselves.
The 55,000 households teetering on the brink of eviction are the subject of this vote today. That figure is calculated using widely accepted methodology based on population levels and numbers of private tenants. Given that Shelter has already said that by the end of June, 174,000 households had been warned that they would face eviction, we can safely assume that we are talking about tens of thousands having been served with an eviction notice between March and August of this year. All it takes is for a landlord to now reinvoke that eviction notice and during the second wave of an epidemic, in the run up to winter, these families will be searching for a new home. Some will face homelessness and many the misery of temporary accommodation, supported by local authorities that are struggling every day to help. My noble friend Lady Thornhill will elaborate. The winter truce was welcome, but it is too late for these tenants—tenants such as Kevin from Kendal, who told Generation Rent:
“Our landlord has decided to sell their house, no doubt to take advantage of the stamp duty holiday. We have paid our rent on time and in full for almost 4 years, even with the reduced income over Covid-19, but we received a Section 21 Notice. We’re struggling to find a suitable home in our town and are now having to consider moving away and changing our kids’ schools. My eldest son should be starting Year 7 at the local secondary in September. I was a child when I was evicted from my home 24 years ago. I never thought my kids would go through this.”
We must vote down this statutory instrument today to help tenants such as Kevin. The Government were warned and had time to prepare. They could have used the recommendations of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee back in May to give judges more discretion or to accelerate the abolition of Section 21, but they did not. In this debate, some will want to talk about how difficult it has been for many landlords. I agree, and I wholeheartedly support the package of proposals for tenants and landlords drawn up by the National Residential Landlords Association, Shelter, Crisis, Generation Rent and others, but that is not the subject of the vote today. If we vote against this statutory instrument, will landlords still be able to take action regarding more serious eviction cases? Yes, they will, because of the second statutory instrument. This Motion ensures that there is fairness between those threatened with eviction before August and those threatened with eviction after August. That is all.
I recognise that this House does not like to vote down statutory instruments—it is not a good precedent—but this Government have already abandoned due process. The Commons did not do its job and properly scrutinise this SI. The Government did not comply with the 21-day rule of having 21 sitting days before it was enacted. This week, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hale, set Parliament the challenge of not surrendering our role because of Covid-19. This is not comfortable parliamentary business, but neither is it comfortable for the tens of thousands threatened with eviction.
As for the Motion to Regret, clearly, I agree with its laudable aims, but if we vote for that, nothing happens. We will come back tomorrow to discuss more Covid-19 regulations, but we will not have changed the law. We must vote down this SI and change the law. The sky will not fall in. Serious evictions will still happen, but thousands of families threatened with eviction, with no cash and no options, will have your Lordships to thank for changing the law and giving them the reprieve that they need in these terrifying times.
My Lords, Ministers promised that no one would lose their home because of coronavirus. The rules before this House today will see this promise broken. Tenants across the UK are struggling to make ends meet right now, and just as the furlough scheme ends, redundancies begin, and lockdowns start again. This Government’s response is to bring the evictions moratorium to a halt.
I remind the House of some of the figures that we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Grender. Shelter estimates that close to 250,000 renters are now at risk of a Covid-19 eviction as a result of the ban being lifted. Already, 174,000 private tenants have been threatened with eviction by their landlord or letting agent. Even before this crisis, more than half of private renters aged between 25 and 34 had no savings. On top of this, 45% of renters have lost their income since March, according to Generation Rent.
The Government are well aware of this and rightly avoided the cliff edge back in August, when they chose to extend the evictions ban. However, less than a month later, they have driven off that very same cliff edge. I understand that the Minister will tell the House that the evictions ban cannot go on for ever—I accept that—but it is not what we, or anyone else, are asking for. We are asking the Government to stick to their word that no one will lose their home because of coronavirus.
In the months that have passed since the announcement of the moratorium, the Ministry could have put in place the right measures to ensure this promise is honoured. It could have brought in the right to support for tenants who are struggling, changes to the universal credit system and an uplift in local housing allowance. It could have also announced a credible plan to deal with rent arrears. Instead, it has leapt from crisis to crisis, wasted the summer months, and now tenants are facing the same predicament they faced at the beginning of the pandemic.
Yesterday, all Peers received a letter from the Minister in which he outlined the support the Government have brought forward to help with people’s living costs, including rent. These measures are mitigation, but they are hedged around with discretionary payments and different eviction rules in different parts of the country, depending on whether there is a local lockdown. The central point for today’s statutory instrument is that the eviction process will restart, and Government will break their promise to some of the most vulnerable people in our country.
The Government should feel compelled to extend the evictions ban because of the misery which will be caused to those who will lose their homes. They should also recognise that if they do not act, there will be wider implications for us all.
Sixteen health bodies, including the British Medical Association, have warned of a potential rise in Covid infections if the Government force people into homelessness or overcrowded accommodation. The consequences of these measures extend far beyond those who will be directly evicted.
The National Residential Landlords Association is also calling for more support for tenants. In other parts of the UK there has been recognition of the looming crisis. I draw attention to what the Welsh Government are doing, for example. They have extended minimum notice periods, launched an early alert scheme, introduced tenancy saver loans and begun a housing advice campaign. Through their local authorities, they have supported people in the private rented sector.
The Liberal Democrats’ Motion is a fatal Motion; ours is a regret Motion. I believe that a fatal Motion would go against the express view of the House of Commons, but above that, it would be a diversion from the seriousness of this issue and quickly degenerate into a constitutional row, which would take the focus off the central importance of this issue.
The Labour Benches have repeatedly warned that the Government should not lift the evictions ban until they have a credible plan which ensures that people who have lost income due to coronavirus do not lose their homes. Regrettably, that has not happened. The ban will be lifted, and the plan to be put in place is insufficient for the Government to say they have kept their promise. I hope that today, the Minister can unveil a better plan.
My Lords, I am pleased to follow the noble Lords proposing the two motions before the House. The noble Baroness, Lady Grender, is an experienced Member of this House. I expect she fully understands that her proposition to annul these measures is contrary to the practice and conventions of this House. Such a proposition, if successful, will be greatly to the disadvantage of the House. I hope she reconsiders the matter and withdraws her Motion.
I will address the regret Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby. I think he is wrong. In the light of the pandemic, I can understand the anxiety of noble Lords about this matter, but if we agree with the view that the justice process is not just about the resolution of difficult matters but also about fairness, we need to get the courts hearing cases again. Justice and fairness, to both landlord and tenant, cannot be put on hold just because of the pandemic, particularly as the Government have introduced measures to assist fairness and justice following the working group convened by the Master of the Rolls. There has been reference to yesterday’s letter from the Minister, Alex Chalk; it makes the measures in the practice direction clear. The prioritisation of cases will focus on anti-social behaviour, extreme rent arrears, domestic abuse, fraud and deception, illegal occupation and squatters, and abandonment of a property. I think noble Lords will agree that these cases are not just about parties to the dispute, but often about the rights and distress of neighbours.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, and the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, for giving us this chance to consider how a Covid-related rise in homelessness can be avoided. I declare my interests as on the register.
The pandemic has revealed how insecure and vulnerable is the private rented sector. Tenants, who can be paying over 40% of their income on rents, can lose their homes if they lose their jobs. Landlords, and there are over 2 million of them, can lose much of their income if they lose their rent. Therefore, the problems now faced by tenants and landlords call into question whether halving the size of the social housing sector—councils and housing associations—and doubling the size of the private rented sector, has been a sensible switch. We can now see the necessity not only of promised renters’ reforms but of rebalancing the two rental sectors, so that more households once again have the greater affordability and security of council and housing association accommodation.
The immediate necessity, however, is to avoid thousands of households with rent arrears losing their homes, not least because temporary accommodation for homeless families is already costing £1 billion a year. The annulment Motion by the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, seeks to do this by addressing one unfair anomaly in the current arrangements. The Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, points to the lack of discretion for the courts in England—unlike their equivalents in Scotland —to refuse or delay a possession order where this is clearly justified.
I recommend that the Government also top up councils’ Covid hardship funds and reconsider the Spanish tenants’ loan scheme: a government-guaranteed, interest-free bank loan, repayable over six years or more, that pays off the arrears so the tenant is not evicted. The landlord is happy, the cost to government is very modest and to the tenant, bearable; and a rise in homelessness and misery is avoided.
My Lords, it is always good to follow the noble Lord, Lord Best, with his knowledge of this area. I am aware of the importance of this matter for both landlord and tenants. I am grateful for many of the measures that have been in place hitherto and many of the protections and mitigations which will continue under these rules. However, to pick up a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Best, I am concerned about those who may now find themselves in significant arrears, not least because of the pandemic. I think we will find there are many more in this situation than there were some months ago. This will disproportionately affect those from the most vulnerable groups in our midst, including migrants and those with mental health conditions.
A few months ago, the Everyone In initiative was in very many ways an astounding success and something of which the Government and others can, rightly, be proud. I would not want to see that being reversed by the effects of what is now being proposed, whether intended or not. My anxiety is that, just as infection rates may be rising, so evictions could reverse the good work that was done by putting people back on the streets. I will listen carefully to the debate. I hope for reassurance from the Minister but I have an inclination to vote for the regret Motion to give judges greater discretion in this matter.
My Lords, very briefly and swiftly I shall give the local government perspective of the impact of this SI.
This pandemic has merely highlighted and exacerbated a growing problem—namely, that, with a significant reduction in social housing over many years, many low-waged earners are now privately renting and, as a direct consequence, are spending a higher percentage of their wages simply on putting a roof over their head.
Pre-Covid, the most common reason for people turning up homeless to their local council was eviction from a private tenancy. That figure is still at 74% nationally. In the longer term, we must reverse this decline and provide significantly more social, not affordable, housing. Just 6,000 homes for rent were built last year.
Local authorities, with government help from the Everyone In initiative, have taken 15,000 homeless people off the streets, but there is not the appropriate accommodation to house them permanently. Adding to this number by enabling further evictions will exacerbate an already difficult and unsustainable situation. Councils are using hotels and hostels, which is a temporary solution. In the last financial year, councils’ net expenditure on temporary accommodation was £140 million over budget. It is crucial that we prevent by whatever means possible any further homelessness.
To reduce evictions from the private sector, the Government should urgently bring forward their proposal to end Section 21 no-fault evictions and commit to maintaining the local housing allowance at the 30th percentile in the longer term. They should provide assurances to councils about the continuation of the much-needed discretionary housing payments for at least the next financial year and, finally, address the £2 billion local authority funding gap.
My Lords, I wish the House to understand the view of the Welsh Government on the importance of housing and the private rented sector. It is a humane and supportive way of dealing with the fundamental issue of people having a decent home.
In February, the Welsh Government introduced an amendment to their housing Bill. The aim of the Bill was to improve security of tenure for those who rent their home in Wales. Although its provisions will apply to all landlords, its greatest impact will be felt in the private rented sector. Increased security of tenure would be achieved by amending the Renting Homes (Wales) Act 2016 to extend the minimum notice period for a notice given under Section 173 from two to six months, and to restrict the issuing of such a notice until six months after the occupation date of the contract, currently set at four months. The net effect of these changes would be to double the length of time before a landlord could seek possession at the beginning of a contract from six months to one year.
The Minister for Housing and Local Government in the Senedd said that she was committed to ensuring that the Government continue to protect renters, while at the same time mitigating impacts on landlords and protecting communities from the harmful effects of anti-social behaviour. Where rent arrears have accumulated due to Covid-19, private rented sector tenants will be able to apply for a loan through the tenancy saver loan scheme, which opens at the end of this month and will provide £1.4 million to manage debt problems. Looking beyond the pandemic, the Welsh Government will continue with their Bill to amend the Act to increase the security of tenure, meaning that security of tenure in Wales will be greater than elsewhere in the UK.
This ground-breaking legislation sends out a very clear message—a secure home is essential and forms the basis of a decent society. The regret Motion in the name of my noble friend Lord Ponsonby follows that sense of decency in trying to protect tenants in England from eviction. I urge this Government to look at what we are doing in Wales to support people, particularly in these most difficult of times.
My Lords, although it was right to impose a ban on evictions as we worked to understand the effects of coronavirus, it was not without consequence, particularly for victims of domestic abuse. For months, victims have been trapped in their homes with their perpetrator, living in daily fear of abuse because landlords have not been able to end tenancy agreements. This situation cannot continue. If we do not redeem evictions, we will prolong people’s suffering and let victims down. I know how seriously Members across the House take the issue of domestic abuse, so I am sure that this is something that none of us would want.
My Lords, my involvement in the private rented sector is parliamentary, personal and professional. I saw the freeze on evictions as a necessary but blunt instrument due to the prevailing immediacy of circumstances and for good order, given judicial incapacity. Landlords and tenants, lenders and borrowers, the honest and the less so, and many pre-existing or unrelated issues were swept up in this. However, coronavirus cannot go on being cited for all ills.
I might have supported the Motion to Regret and the Motion for an humble Address to annul the rules had it been possible to distinguish a genuine balance of Covid-related hardship from more opportunistic practices, or indeed from unrelated pre-Covid matters. I could have done so had it been clear, on fair assessment, that the balance of hardship was invariably in favour of protecting renters and maintaining the freeze. However, I am not convinced. I note that over 60% of private rented sector landlords are owners of but one rented property. Perhaps the owner wanting to reoccupy their sole rented home, the pensioner, possibly in care and reliant on the rental income from their former home, and the buy-to-let borrower also need fair treatment or we risk serious consequences. The sector needs protection from poor tenants and poor landlords alike.
Covid ultimately affects our entire existence and economy, and we have to get back to normal somehow or other. I accept that the Government might offer financial assistance, which would ease the issue, and I would support that, but I feel that it is probably out of scope and I certainly do not believe that it is a cure-all.
Rocks and hard places apart, matters cannot just drift. The eviction freeze comes with moral hazards and abuses, and must revert to case-by-case assessment of the individual circumstances, so that landlords and tenants are subject to independent adjudication. Therefore, although the Government need to demonstrate an approach to the lacuna referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, I follow the reasoning and conclusions of the noble Lord, Lord Taylor.
My Lords, I believe that the right to shelter is just that—a fundamental human right. Incidentally, in the light of recent remarks, I also think that that right comes even before someone’s right to buy to let. That said, I understand the property right, but the crucial thing here is that in a pandemic, of all times, we do not need people to be rendered homeless, whatever the reasons for that homelessness. Therefore, it is my belief that the Government should enact emergency legislation after this debate to ensure that no one is homeless during the pandemic. How will it be possible to enforce further local or national lockdowns, or to deal with this catastrophic crisis of social mixing, before there is a vaccine if we cannot guarantee that everyone has basic shelter and that no one is homeless?
At the moment I am minded to support the regret Motion rather than the fatal one, and not just because of constitutional conventions, significant though they must be in the context of an unelected House. Can the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, explain in a little more detail in her summing up the legal effect of annulling retrospectively Civil Procedure Rules that have granted eviction protection for the past month? It is a concern about throwing that last month’s protection and legal certainty into doubt that gives me real pause for thought about the fatal Motion.
Therefore, as I said, at the moment I am minded to support the regret Motion, but not just as a debating point. Your Lordships’ House is not the Oxford Union or Cambridge Union; it needs to have more teeth than that. I am not a great fan of this Government but the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, is a fantastic representative of them and a distinguished Member of this House. However, this is not just about adjudicating fairness between landlord and tenant. If we are to be fair to both, there is no problem with the Government stepping behind landlords and tenants, and providing the finances to make sure that no one need lose out or become homeless in this crisis. That can be done with emergency legislation to ensure a basic income, including the rent payments that people need and, where necessary, emergency social housing.
My Lords, I have nothing to add on the substantive issues to the excellent speech made by my noble friend Lady Grender. I just want to say one or two things on affirmative Motions. I have been a Member of this House for 20 years. During that time, there have been a handful of occasions when the Conservatives have moved or supported fatal Motions on affirmative instruments. Their view seems to change according to whether they are in government or not.
Whenever there has been an investigation into the powers of the Lords on affirmative instruments—there have been two major investigations in that time—on each occasion, the conclusion was that the Lords have the power and ought to keep it but it ought to be used extremely sparingly. Therefore, it is wrong to say, as the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, said, that this was contrary to the practices and conventions of this House. Rather, it would be contrary to the practices and conventions for such powers to be proposed and used frequently.
There are some occasions when fatal Motions are justified. One is when there is a very unusual situation and the Government have got themselves in a mess over what they are doing procedurally. That is the case at the moment, when all the statutory instruments that we are getting are not being dealt with properly, so we are in an exceptional situation. Another occasion when they are justified is when the fatality is technical. If this were to be voted down today, it would be a fatal Motion but not in practice. For example, 20 years ago, the House rejected a statutory instrument on GLA elections, but that did not stop those elections because it was possible for the Government of the day to turn around and sort it out.
Why have affirmative instruments in the first place? If we can never vote them down, there is no point in having them. The fact that we can, and occasionally do, vote them down actually gives all affirmative instruments a great deal more importance and means that the Government have to pay attention to them, so we should vote for this Motion.
My Lords, the Government are absolutely right not to continue the blanket ban on repossessions. After six months, when many landlords have struggled without any government help, with tenants who have already not been paying rent since before lockdown or who are damaging the property and behaving violently, is it really right effectively to force landlords to continue to provide free social housing even to problem tenants, costing private individuals thousands of pounds? These are not rich tycoons: just under half rent out only one property. Many are pensioners relying on rent for their retirement security. A balance must be struck between protecting tenants affected by Covid and enabling a property owner to recover their losses—or, indeed, to move into their own property on return from military service or working abroad when they would otherwise be legally barred from doing so.
The Motion of the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, to annul this statutory instrument, as my noble friend Lord Taylor of Holbeach explained, would be against the conventions of our House. It would also cause chaos around the country and would damage the availability of private rented accommodation, which will be needed so much in future. There are protections for tenants, and the prioritisation of the courts will focus on anti-social or violent tenants, squatters, fraudsters and those with arrears that already go back more than one year. Homelessness is a dreadful problem; the Government must get to grips with it. I support the calls from around the House for emergency funding to support landlords and tenants where they face such problems in the current emergency. However, this blanket ban on repossessions does not seem like natural justice.
My Lords, earlier this year, research by Age UK found that there were 750,000 private renters over the age of 60 in the UK. Older renters are often forgotten, and many live in constant fear of being evicted. This happened even before the pandemic. Some 28% of those who have been shielding during the pandemic usually work; half of these people are over the age of 50. That is why I, along with a cross-party group of 46 other Members of this House, recently wrote to the Chancellor asking him to give those who need it most job security and a decent income while the risks of Covid remain high. As the coronavirus job retention scheme or furloughs come to an end, there is a risk that many of these people will end up in rent arrears and face eviction.
One in five people aged between 50 and 64 are carers, as research from the Centre for Ageing Better in August last year showed. Many of these carers are forced to reduce their working hours and their income to care for loved ones, as we know. ONS figures from April this year found that 17% of employed carers had to reduce their working hours during the pandemic, while Alzheimer’s Society figures from 2019 showed that 112,000 people have left employment to care for family members who have dementia. Dementia Carers Count found that 36% of family carers provide care in excess of 100 hours a week.
The broken social care system means that carers’ incomes have been reduced during the pandemic; they are at greater risk of falling into rent arrears and now could also face eviction. A 2018 survey conducted by Mind found that one in four people said that having an unstable tenancy had impacted negatively on their mental health. A 2017 study by the Association of Mental Health Providers found that people with mental health problems were more likely to be evicted for either financial reasons or disproportionate anti- social behaviour. The same study found that people who are evicted tend to have worse physical and mental health than the average person. Moreover, the process of eviction itself can have profound psychological consequences and is associated with increased suicide risk. Do the Government have any plans to help these varied—
My Lords, many people risk eviction because the pandemic means that they cannot afford to pay their rent. The Resolution Foundation found that 32% of private renters of working age have seen their earnings hit, and one in eight private renters have fallen behind in their rent since the pandemic started, with figures much higher for benefit recipients.
Renters who have claimed benefits during the pandemic are almost three times as likely to be struggling with housing costs. Many are shocked to find that benefits do not cover their rent. After years of freezes, the Chancellor announced that a local housing allowing will cover “at least 30%” of market rents in your area, but for many people, that is not true. The Commons Library brief says that
“the caps still bite at a lower level than the 30th percentile for half of the local housing association rates in central and inner London.”
Meanwhile, the number of households hit by the benefit cap increased by 93% in the quarter to May, driven by a 600% increase in the number of universal credit households being capped due to the pandemic. So much of this is driven by high housing costs. Ministers always say that you can beat the cap by getting a job—but what jobs?
Ministers have given some extra funding, and that is good, but it is clearly not enough. Labour has called for Ministers to act, asking them not to ditch the furlough scheme but to adapt it; to extend the universal credit top-up of £20 a week to legacy benefits; to suspend the benefit cap; to remove the two-child limit; and to end the five-week wait for universal credit, which is a massive driver of housing arrears.
I support the Motion of my noble friend Lord Ponsonby. Only this week, my church told me that homeless people are now being seen back on the streets of Durham. If Ministers do not address the underlying financial problems facing so many people in this pandemic, I am afraid that we will see a lot more people losing their homes before it is over. I urge the Government to act.
My Lords, I declare my interests as stated in the register and fully support the way that, during the Covid crisis, the Government have tried to allay the fears of those tenants in cases where there is a danger of them being oppressed or evicted by bad landlords or unavoidable economic or social hardship.
However, we should reflect that the size of the private rental sector has grown dramatically in recent years. Nearly 25% of the UK population is now housed in the private sector—an increase, over 10 years, of over 60%. In the vast amount of cases, the relationship between landlords and tenants works well and to the satisfaction of both parties. In a small percentage of cases, it does not. This might be because of dissatisfaction felt by one party about the other over some of the arrangements between them or the quality of the agreement between them. However, in only a few cases—proportionally—is the behaviour sufficiently bad to require action by either of them. This may be the anti-social behaviour of a tenant or a long-term failure to pay rent without excuse, or it may be the threatening behaviour of a landlord or a precipitant notice to quit. However, in some cases, the only solution for a landlord may be to commence eviction proceedings.
The Government recognise that, in the present crisis, some tenants will be under especial pressure—both economic and social—and have therefore introduced changes to give breathing space before evictions can be effected. This is sensible but, surely, we must also consider the effects on many landlords, who are also under enormous pressure and who may well be exemplary in their treatment of their tenants. They also have bills to pay and responsibilities to maintain their properties. If they are without rents or cannot regain possession of properties where bad tenants are currently situated, what are they to do?
I ask my noble friend to do his best to ensure that there is a level playing field and that, in seeking to help tenants—which I am sure is right—he also looks to ensure that the consequent burden put on landlords is alleviated by more positive and balanced government assistance.
My Lords, I declare an interest as the director of Generation Rent. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, and the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, for tabling these Motions, both of which I support. Because of the pandemic, rent debt is piling up for thousands of renters. Yes, the Government have given welcome support, but the scale of the rent-debt crisis means that much more is needed. Rent arrears have doubled, and that is before the end of the furlough scheme. However, when the Government were asked what estimates they have made of the number of private renters in arrears as a result of the pandemic, they were unable to answer. Therefore, I ask the noble Earl to answer that question today.
In addition, will he agree to review why the Government do not collect data on the number of Section 1 notices served or how often different grounds for eviction are used, especially as Sections 21 and 8—ground 8—are mandatory grounds for eviction, over which judges need to be given discretion? Without this, the information on Covid-19 that the Government have asked to be supplied cannot be used to good effect. The lack of government data on private renters as regards evictions has led to gaps in support, such as the issue raised today by the noble Baroness, Lady Grender.
Yes, the Government have given a six-month notice period, but it applies only to renters giving notice from 29 August. If you were handed a notice before this date, the six-month extension does not apply. If reactivated, your eviction will progress. Therefore, will the noble Earl agree to review and remedy this gap in support?
In conclusion, the situation for many renters is as follows: if they have little or no income, or not enough benefits to cover their rent, what are they to do? The rent just cannot be paid. If you are then asked to leave your property by your landlord but have accumulated rent debt, how do you move on? How do you get a deposit for a new home? How do you find a landlord who will take you on? Unless the Government step in with additional legislative and financial support, which will help renters and landlords alike, homelessness is the only option for many renters with rent debt and eviction notices. I urge the Government to act.
My Lords, I support my noble friend Lord Ponsonby’s proposal that the court should have discretion to consider all the circumstances in relation to eviction orders in this terrible time. I also support the creation of an effective landlord-tenant mediation service and the kind of emergency funding that people have referred to in this debate.
The Government were clearly right to impose an evictions moratorium and to extend it. However, we now have the worst of all worlds, with the combination of the lifting of that moratorium and a tightening of general restrictions, the ending of the furlough scheme and an increase in business closures, all of which will mean more lost jobs and precarious incomes.
We are faced with tens of thousands of evictions of renters in the pipeline, a large proportion of whom have never previously been in rent arrears or engaged in anti-social behaviour. Many will inevitably swell the ranks of the unemployed. Therefore, my noble friend Lord Ponsonby’s Motion is the one to support here, but there are also, of course, longer-term and fundamental issues. The structure of social security under universal credit—and the interplay between the various elements—is clearly not fit for purpose in this context.
On the housing market, I note that the absence of more secure alternatives to private renting has meant a massively increased reliance on that sector, enhanced by the tax advantages of buy to let, which has created a range of amateur landlords who cannot afford or do not know how to take account of their tenants’ precarious incomes. Other countries with a high dependence on private renting have stronger legal protection and significant institutional elements in the market. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill, and others, I am in favour of a big increase in council housing, but the objective should also be to professionalise and institutionalise the private rental market.
I declare my interests as recorded in the register. I wish to oppose the two Motions —in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, and the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby—before us today. From 21 September, courts can start to hear possession proceedings again. Since March, no landlord has had access to the courts to regain possession, even in cases where tenants have broken the law.
The effect of the Motion of the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, will be to reverse the ability of the courts to start hearing these cases. Surely, it is right that landlords can take action against tenants whose anti-social behaviour is causing misery to them and others, as well as those carrying out acts of domestic violence. Surely, it is also right that they are able to address situations where tenants have large arrears incurred before lockdown and in no way connected with the Covid-19 pandemic.
I know that all landlords have concern—rightly—for tenants badly affected by Covid-19. The Government’s rules provide a good balance between the rights and needs of the landlord and the needs of the tenants.
My Lords, I declare my interest as outlined in the register. I really appreciate the need to balance the rights of landlords and those of tenants, and realise that the Government have put policies in place with an overarching aim to do so during the Covid-19 crisis. However, the recent increase in the rate of Covid infections has led to further sanctions to prevent transmission, as outlined by the Prime Minister and leaders of the devolved nations yesterday. This is not the time to accelerate the eviction of people in arrears associated with the financial challenges they may have experienced due to job losses or salary reduction over the last six months, or, as so ably put by my noble friend Lady Greengross, because they have mental health problems or caring responsibilities.
Generation Rent estimates that there are 55,000 renters at risk of eviction. I ask the Minister this: do the Government have an estimate of the numbers of these households that contain children of school age? Any such children would be disproportionately affected in their studies through eviction at this time. Can the Government do something further to protect such families from eviction for the next six months?
Some landlords wish to sell properties because of the current high values of homes and the reduction in stamp duty. Could Her Majesty’s Government consider novel approaches to reduce evictions during the ongoing Covid challenge and secure tenancies by, for example, a stamp duty holiday for the purchasers of properties where a landlord delays sale until after March 2021, or by offering interest-free loans to landlords until debts can be resolved?
Crisis is calling for three actions from the Government to protect renters who are facing homelessness: immediately introducing emergency legislation to give judges discretion to prevent evictions where tenants have accrued rent arrears because of Covid-19; providing financial support to help tenants pay back debts in order to remain in their current homes; and amending the benefit cap to add protection for people threatened by homelessness. Can the Minister inform the House whether the Government are actively considering the suggestions from Crisis at this time?
My Lords, first I would like to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, on her expert and compassionate opening remarks.
Being a sympathetic person, I see that the Government have faced an unprecedented challenge in the last few months. It would be a challenge for any Government, let alone a team newly in place, but it has not helped the Government that that team, and of course the Prime Minister, are arrogant and boastful, persistently making comments, claims and statements that bear absolutely no relation to the truth. It must be hard for a Conservative Government to spend so much public money so fast, albeit that a considerable amount was misspent.
I understand that the Government are trying to get back to normal, but I would argue that restarting evictions and allowing more people—families—to be pushed out on to the streets is not the answer. Everyone has the right to a home. It is plain cruel that, during a pandemic and a massive economic downturn, people are being forced out of their homes. The short extensions to the ban have done nothing to alleviate fears of renters up and down the country. We are now once again on the precipice of a homelessness crisis, which will not only bring misery to many but will hinder any effort to tackle Covid-19. We have to do whatever it takes to protect people during this pandemic, and that means a permanent ban on evictions for the duration of the crisis.
Of course, as with most crises, it is the poor and vulnerable who suffer most. It is within the Government’s power to ensure that nobody is left without the basic human right of a roof over their head. The Green Party and I have urged the Government to extend the ban on evictions.
I would like to answer the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, for whom I have a huge amount of respect normally. He suggested that we were going to break with convention, but when we have a Government who break the law, what price convention?
My Lords, I have in the past been a residential landlord and I am currently a residential tenant, so I am aware of the difficulties that can be faced by both entities. I am fully aware of the very serious hardships experienced by both tenants and landlords alike from the current pandemic. However, in the property rental world there has always been a minority of bad tenants—those who cause misery for other tenants and neighbours through anti-social behaviour or for other reasons—and landlords need to address situations where a small minority of tenants are regularly in arrears. There are bound to be instances of arrears which go back way before Covid. While I have every sympathy with those who have suffered financial difficulties as a consequence of Covid, I have little sympathy with the other group.
It is plainly wrong to regard landlords as being wealthy individuals and businesses that can afford to take a hit from rent arrears. The majority of landlords have only one property, and a considerable number purchased a property with their pension fund and have the rent as their sole form of income. To evict a tenant for whatever reason is a slow, arduous and expensive exercise in itself, notwithstanding the considerable loss of rent.
I have no time to comment further, but suffice to say I strongly support the Government in their views on the rules before us today.
My Lords, it is incumbent upon a civilised society not to ignore the dreadful impact of the inevitable consequences of these proposed evictions. I add my support to the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, and my noble friend Lord Ponsonby, with whom I am in total agreement in what they have said before the House.
While I accept that landlords must be protected from any intentional or criminal negligence caused by a small number of tenants, that problem is nowhere near the punitive impact of these measures on the majority of vulnerable families, with inevitable consequences that will place the burden on a local authority that is already well stretched. Measures to protect tenants must be in the forefront of our strategies and actions. The Government must consider writing off the debts of those who cannot afford to meet their financial obligations as a result of Covid-related job losses and not having access to other government support.
We have so many experts on housing solutions in this very House—the noble Lords, Lord Bird, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, Lord Young and Lord Kerslake—as well as the advice of Shelter and other notable NGOs. In addition to stopping the section 21 eviction notice, will the Government consider bringing together an expert group of Members and external advisers, alongside Ministers and civil servants, to consider how to create urgent housing solutions to meet the needs of homeless families, and particularly to avoid overcrowding and prevent the dangerous explosion of Covid-19?
My Lords, this is not an area that I normally get involved in in this House. However, having read the papers which were available to me, I realised that there is a deep problem here. Sometimes it does not help to rush in with a solution that just involves depriving one set of people of all rights, as has been indicated by previous speakers. For that reason, and having looked at the statutory provisions, I would support the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, but only go that far.
My Lords, I apologise for my wi-fi glitch and thank the House for allowing me back in.
It would have been my pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of Cradley, and I share her concerns, particularly about discretion for judges. Today’s debate is about emergency evictions, and my noble friend Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb has addressed the details of that. I am going to look at the broader picture.
We have a profoundly insecure housing model. As in so many other areas, Covid-19 has only exposed pre-existing weaknesses in our society. Houses have been treated primarily as financial assets rather than secure, genuinely affordable places for people to live. Just as in the UK in the depths of the Second World War, there was deep, effective planning for the NHS and the welfare state, we need to be thinking now about a different housing policy future.
In 1979, heading on for half the British population lived in council housing; they were secure. Then right to buy arrived. Now, nearly half the homes purchased under that and not replaced are owned by private landlords, massively subsidised by housing benefit and tax breaks. Money that might have gone into productive economic investments has gone instead into lifting prices. In private rental accommodation of 4.6 million households, one in 10 of which are insecure in the age of Covid, a significant number of tenants are over 50, as the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, noted.
Insecurity is not the only problem; we know there is a huge problem with quality—draughty, cold, badly maintained housing stock. That poor quality sadly extends to homes being sold now to people who are stretching every financial sinew, with prices supported by Help to Buy, also known as “help to profit” for a few large corporations. In 2019, the National Audit Office noted that many buyers would immediately lurch into negative equity—something now of even greater concern.
It is tempting to think now that we should just patch the worst problems, but we also need to see the Government putting serious work into a different housing model.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Grender for bringing this Motion to Annul, and I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, for his Motion to Regret. However, my noble friend is right that the Motion to Regret will achieve no practical result, so the only way to protect the 50,000-odd households faced with eviction notices served between March and August is to annul this SI. It is important to note that the Motion would not protect tenants guilty of anti-social behaviour or domestic violence, as the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, suggested.
I know my noble friend has thought carefully about this fatal Motion, but, although this step is serious, it does no more than annul this change in the Civil Procedure Rules, which can be changed again to produce a just and humane result. My noble friend put it into context. The Government promised in April 2019 to legislate to end Section 21 no-fault evictions—a promise they have not yet kept. But these are not just no-fault evictions, they are also no-discretion evictions. After an assured shorthold tenancy ends, a court “shall” make an order for possession when the notice period expires.
On 28 August, the compulsory notice period was extended by SI to six months for notices served from 29 August. That was a humane measure to protect renters from eviction during the pandemic. However, by this SI, tenants served with eviction notices between March and August have no protection. From this last Monday, they can be evicted without six months’ notice. They get no genuine protection from the new practice direction 55C. That requires only that the landlord provides information about the effect of the pandemic on tenants and dependants—in a reactivation notice in stayed claims, or under a protocol in new claims. Crucially, however, as the noble Lord, Lord Best, and many others have pointed out, the rules give no discretion, whatever the hardship and unfairness, for a judge to withhold a possession order provided only that the landlord has provided the required information.
We have heard of the likely practical effects of these short-notice evictions: untold hardship for tenants and their families hit by the pandemic, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester said; pressure on local authorities unable to rehouse evicted tenants, described by my noble friend Lady Thornhill; increased homelessness and poverty; exposure of those newly homeless and their families to greater risk of coronavirus. Turning to the numbers, I am convinced by the evidence that the figure at risk is about 55,000 households, but the point is also one of principle. Each affected household is unfairly the victim of an anomaly that causes hardship and injustice.
Nothing in the all-Peers letter from Alex Chalk MP meets any of these points. The Government have been misguided in leaving these tenants without the protection of six months’ notice. If they will not back down, this House should exercise its undoubted power, of which my noble friend Lord Greaves spoke, to annul this unjust SI.
My Lords, first, I draw the attention of the House to my relevant interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. It is worth making clear right at the start: there is no blanket ban. There is nothing here suggesting that people who commit anti-social behaviour, domestic violence or other illegal activity cannot be evicted today—absolutely nothing. It is important to recognise that this SI is about no-fault evictions: you have decent, hard-working people whose only crime is the fact that they have not been able to work since March in the entertainment industry or the hospitality industry and they do not have the money to pay their rent. I want judges to have discretion to consider the impact of Covid-19 on renters and/or their dependants.
I have several questions for the noble Earl. Some points have been raised across the House, but I am sure that, in the time he has, the noble Earl cannot answer all the points put to him, so I should like a commitment from him to write to me and other noble Lords on the points raised.
The first is on lockdowns. If lockdown conditions are resumed for England and Wales, will the evictions ban be put back in place? As regards local lockdowns, will the noble Earl confirm that bailiffs will not be able to perform evictions where there are restrictions on members of other households entering your home?
The second is on benefits. It is a fact that rent payments cannot be covered by benefits, and the caps on housing benefit and local housing allowance limit the amount you can have to pay your rent. Can we temporarily lift the caps and increase benefits to cover average rents? This will immediately ensure that thousands are not up for eviction and will help landlords and tenants alike.
Thirdly, it is clear that we need to get money into the hands of renters and landlords to help rent debt and avoid homelessness. I welcome what the Government have done, but the scale of the economic shock and the effect on jobs and incomes is now huge—so, sadly, it is not enough. Renters cannot pay to landlords what they have not got. Many landlords have been accommodating, but of course, as money gets tighter, more landlords will get more anxious about their own situation and more eviction notices will be issued, leaving homelessness as the only option for renters. So does the noble Earl agree that the Government must step in to stop this increase in homelessness and introduce a system of grants and benefit increases to stop thousands of renters being made homeless?
The fourth point is on data. Will the Government commit to collecting and publishing data on Section 21 notices served, and how often different grounds of eviction are used? The fifth is on discretion for judges. Landlords and tenants have been asked to provide information on Covid-19, but the judge cannot use that information to pause or change the terms of an eviction under Section 21 or Section 8, ground 8. Can this be changed? Will the Government bring forward emergency legislation to give judges discretionary powers to take Covid-19 into account?
The final point is on discrimination. The Government’s guidance published last Thursday states:
“In some circumstances, it may be possible to prevent the eviction if you feel the landlord has discriminated against you based on who you are”.
Can the Minister confirm that it is possible to stop an eviction under Section 21 if the landlord is seeking it based on the tenant’s gender, disability or other protected characteristics?
In conclusion, as I said earlier, the noble Earl cannot give a commitment on all the issues raised here, but I hope that he can respond to us all in writing. For me, this is about decent, law-abiding people whose only crime is that they cannot pay their rent because of the pandemic.
My Lords, I first declare my interests as set down in the register. I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate, in particular the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, and the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, whose Motions have given rise to it. Each of those Motions highlights concerns about the effect of removing tenants’ protection from eviction, which was provided by the stay on possession proceedings between 27 March and 20 September this year. Each Motion expressly criticises this instrument for not going far enough to protect tenants. I hope to demonstrate to the House that this criticism is unjust.
I start by addressing the Motion of the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, which seeks to annul this instrument. Lest any noble Lord has overlooked this, I need to make it crystal clear that, even though the stay on possession proceedings has now ended, the rules set out in this instrument and the practice direction they introduce contain some vital continuing protections for tenants, which I shall explain. The effect of an annulment would be to remove those protections.
Secondly, I remind the House of the policy the Government have consistently followed in this area since the start of this pandemic, which has been to strike a balance between protecting the vulnerable and supporting the legitimate rights and interests of landlords. I will say more on that theme shortly.
Thirdly, noble Lords should appreciate that this instrument and the accompanying practice direction form part of a wider package of measures that the Government have put in place to ensure fair treatment for both tenants and landlords going forward. I will summarise those measures in a moment, but the point here is that this instrument should not be considered in isolation.
The Government took unprecedented action to ensure that renters were protected from eviction at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, including agreeing with the courts to use powers in relation to court procedure to stay possession proceedings for a total of six months until 20 September—but that stay could only ever be temporary. The civil justice system and the rules that underpin it must be accessible, fair and efficient for tenants and landlords alike.
In what way does this instrument provide protection for tenants? Through these new rules, we have sought to make sure that where possession cases come to court, the resumption of such cases is carefully managed —first, to ensure that the courts are not overwhelmed; and secondly, to enable them to make decisions so that the most vulnerable can get the help and support they need, and in particular that tenants have access to legal advice and support.
For any possession proceedings up to 28 March 2021, the new court rules will also require landlords to set out any relevant information about a tenant’s circumstances, including—as the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, will wish to note—information on the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on both the tenant and their dependants when making a possession claim. This information will enable the court considering the claim to have regard to vulnerability, disability and the social security position, and to those who are shielding. This is a requirement under the relevant practice direction, which parties are under a duty to comply with. The tenant will be provided with a copy of this information and may add to or correct it.
Landlords will also be required to notify the court and their tenant where they wish to continue pursuing a possession claim that was already in the court system prior to 3 August, so giving notice that the claim is being reactivated. If such notice is not filed by 29 January 2021, the claim will be subject to an automatic stay. Where claims are based on arrears of rent, landlords must produce a full arrears history for the previous two years, and they must do this in advance of, rather than at, the hearing of the claim. In other words, landlords cannot just pick up where they left off, so to speak.
The noble Baroness, Lady Watkins of Tavistock, asked how many of the 50,000 people at risk of eviction include families with schoolchildren and whether the Government are considering Crisis’s recommendations. My advice is that the Generation Rent figures she quoted are not to be relied on. Analysis published by the Government shows that 3,022 private and social landlords applied to the courts for possession between April and June, 89% lower than in the same time last year.
I mentioned support. It is important that all parties receive appropriate support, and we have worked with the judiciary to put in place new court arrangements to that end. I am grateful to the working group convened by the Master of the Rolls and chaired by Mr Justice Knowles, who have played a key role in this.
The working group contained a broad range of stakeholders and, resulting from its recommendations, the judiciary will look to prioritise cases that can be classified as the most egregious—that is to say, those involving anti-social behaviour, extreme rent arrears, domestic abuse, fraud and deception, illegal occupiers and squatters or abandonment of a property—as well as claims started before the stay commenced in March 2020. That prioritisation will provide assurance to landlords, their tenants and neighbours, especially those who are having to confront really difficult and pressing situations.
I mentioned the availability of legal advice for those facing possession proceedings. We have made adjustments to the legal aid Housing Possession Court Duty Scheme to ensure that it can be delivered remotely where necessary. We have also tendered for new contracts to fill gaps in provision, to ensure that this vital support can be accessed by those who need it, wherever they are in England and Wales.
A number of speakers referred to notice periods for tenants, and I stressed a few minutes ago that this instrument should not be looked at in isolation. We have taken decisive legislative action, through a statutory instrument laid on 28 August to require landlords to provide tenants with six months’ notice in all but the most serious cases. That SI amends Schedule 29 to the Coronavirus Act 2020 and came into force on 29 August, providing reassurance to responsible tenants that they will not face new court proceedings during this time.
We recognise that in some circumstances, landlords have been dealing with a difficult situation in which there is no reasonable alternative to possession proceedings. We have therefore lowered notice periods for cases involving anti-social behaviour, domestic abuse, fraud and egregious rent arrears of more than six months to enable landlords to progress those cases more quickly. This approach ensures that tenants will remain safe and have additional time to find new accommodation, while empowering landlords to take action where necessary—for example, if a tenant’s anti-social behaviour is severely impacting their neighbours’ quality of life.
The noble Baroness, Lady Grender, asked whether we might explore ways to apply longer notice periods for those who were served notice before 29 August. As she will recognise, the difficulty here is that of applying retrospection to existing law and thereby undermining the certainty that the law should provide to all parties. In practice, those who received notice before 29 August were protected from eviction by the suspension of possession hearings until 20 September, as well as by the prioritisation of cases in the courts and the new requirements placed on landlords to which I have referred.
The noble Baroness referred to Section 21 of the Housing Act 1988, which permits no-fault evictions. I therefore add that the Government remain committed to bringing forward legislation to abolish Section 21 in due course. That does not mean ignoring landlords’ legitimate interests. Any such legislation must balance greater security of tenure with an assurance that landlords are able to recover their properties where they have valid reasons to do so.
A number of noble Lords expressed concerns about forced evictions. We are taking steps to ensure that no enforcement of evictions will take place in areas where local lockdown measures are in force that restrict access to premises. Guidance has been issued to bailiffs to ensure that no enforcement of possession orders will proceed where local lockdown regulations restrict gatherings in residential properties to protect public health. I will write to noble Lords with further details about that.
One or two speakers, including my noble friend Lady Altmann, the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, and the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, referred to the need to provide tenants with enhanced financial support. In addition to the measures I have mentioned, I remind noble Lords that the Government have already put in place a major package of financial support to help communities through the pandemic. There is the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, which has provided support for businesses to pay staff salaries. We have also strengthened the welfare safety net with a nearly £9.3 billion boost to the welfare system. That includes an extra £1 billion to increase local housing allowance rates so that they cover the lowest 30% of market rents, meaning we now have a £25 billion budget to help people with rent payments in the private and social rented sectors. For renters who require additional support, there is an existing £180 million of government funding for discretionary housing payments made available this year. That is an increase of £40 million from last year for local councils to distribute to support renters with housing costs.
We need to look at all these measures in the round. Taken together, they strongly encourage landlords and tenants to sustain tenancies as far as possible and to discuss their situation before seeking possession and bringing a claim to court. Where cases end up in court, these measures ensure that court time can be used effectively, that the most egregious cases can be dealt with as a priority and that court users, both tenants and landlords, have the additional support they need. Comprehensive new guidance for landlords and tenants to explain all these new arrangements and how they impact on the court possessions process has also been published.
I will write to those noble Lords whose questions I have not covered in the time available, but please understand that things never stand still. The Government are clear that all measures to protect renters over this period will be kept under constant review in the light of the evidence on public health. I therefore say to the House that this instrument should be supported as a vital element in the safeguards that we are providing to parties and to manage cases sensibly in the courts. For those reasons, it most certainly should not be annulled; nor, I submit, should it be viewed as a matter for regret. I therefore do very much hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, and the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, will feel able to withdraw their respective Motions.
My Lords, I feel compelled to repeat one paragraph from my opening speech because it seems that it was not heard originally. I apologise if it lacked clarity. If we vote against this statutory instrument, will landlords still be able to take action regarding more serious eviction cases? Yes, because of the statutory instrument that was tabled in August, which is not the one the House is voting on today. I want to make sure that noble Lords are absolutely clear that egregious cases, domestic violence, long-term arrears, et cetera are included in the statutory instrument that was tabled in August.
It is therefore possible to vote to annul this instrument. It will not freeze or stop the egregious cases. If, as the Minister said, I am talking about so few cases—I do not agree with him; I think that the loophole is larger—then why not do it? What is the harm in ensuring that there is a longer notice period for people who were served notice between March and August? This is not for the egregious cases, just for the no-fault evictions under Section 21 with no explanation, because judges still have no discretion whatever.
I completely understand that it is difficult and messy to do this retrospectively. However, if this instrument falls, it would be up to the Government to come back. This House has done the job that the Commons failed to do: ask the Government to think again. This is about a very small but incredibly important factor; I believe that it is 55,000. The Minister has alternative figures, which I disputed in my opening speech.
Fourteen years ago, the Joint Commission on Conventions met. When summing up, the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham of Felling—Jack Cunningham—from the Labour Benches said:
“It is not incompatible with a revising Chamber to reject”
a statutory instrument. I agree, and have thought long and hard about this since I put down this humble Address at the beginning of the summer. The Government tabled this statutory instrument with no 21-sitting-day period for it to be considered. That consideration did not happen. The Commons did not do its job, so it is up to this House to do the job for it. For that reason, the fatal Motion should go ahead. I therefore wish to test the opinion of the House.
Civil Procedure (Amendment No. 4) (Coronavirus) Rules 2020
Motion to Regret
To move that the House regrets that the Civil Procedure (Amendment No. 4) (Coronavirus) Rules 2020 will not continue to protect tenants from eviction, and calls on Her Majesty’s Government to amend the Housing Act 1998 to give courts temporary discretion on evictions, including on evictions arising from rent arrears (SI 2020/751).
Relevant document: 24th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee
My Lords, when the noble Earl gave his speech just now, he urged us to look at matters in the round. We are looking at matters in the round. We are not saying there should be an indefinite ban on evictions, but that the Government should honour their original promise that there should be no evictions as a result of coronavirus.
There have been a number of very knowledgeable contributions to today’s debate, but the one from my noble friend Lord Whitty is worth emphasising. His point was that there are potentially tens of thousands of evictions in the pipeline. The Government’s response, which we have heard today, is too little, too late. Perhaps this accounts for the huge discrepancy between the figures we heard from Generation Rent and those the noble Earl gave us today on what is actually within the court system. It is the pipeline of potential evictions that we are most concerned about.
I urge Members to support the Opposition’s regret Motion. As I said in my opening remarks, a regret Motion is the best way of dealing with this matter as it keeps the central problem at the heart of the debate, rather than the constitutional issues which would be raised by taking an alternative route.
The following Statement was made on Tuesday 22 September in the House of Commons.
“Mr Speaker, with your permission, I will make a Statement on our response to the rising number of coronavirus cases and how we must act now to avoid still graver consequences later on.
At every stage in this pandemic, we have struck a delicate balance between saving lives by protecting our NHS and minimising the wider impact of our restrictions. It is because of the common sense and fortitude of the British people that, earlier this year, we were able to avert an even worse catastrophe, forming a human shield around our NHS and then getting our country moving again by reopening key sectors of our economy and returning children to school. But we always knew that, while we might have driven the virus into retreat, the prospect of a second wave was real. I am sorry to say that, as in Spain, France and many other countries, we have reached a perilous turning point. A month ago, on average, around 1,000 people across the UK were testing positive for coronavirus every day. The latest figure has almost quadrupled to 3,929. Yesterday, the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser warned that the doubling rate for new cases could be between seven and 20 days, with the possibility of tens of thousands of new infections next month.
I wish I could reassure the House that the growing number of cases is merely a function of more testing, but a rising proportion of the tests themselves are yielding a positive result. I also wish I could say that more of our people now have the antibodies to keep the virus off, but the latest data suggests that fewer than 8% of us are in this position. It is true that the number of new cases is growing fastest among those aged 20 to 29, but the evidence shows that the virus is spreading to other, more vulnerable age groups, as we have seen in France and Spain, where this has led to increased hospital admissions and, sadly, more deaths. In the last fortnight, daily hospital admissions in England have more than doubled. Tens of thousands of daily infections in October would, as night follows day, lead to hundreds of daily deaths in November, and those numbers would continue to grow unless we act. As with all respiratory viruses, Covid is likely to spread faster as autumn becomes winter. Yesterday, on the advice of the four Chief Medical Officers, the UK’s Covid alert level was raised from 3 to 4—the second most serious stage—meaning that transmission is high or rising exponentially.
So this is the moment when we must act. If we can curb the number of daily infections and reduce the reproduction rate to 1, we can save lives, protect the NHS and the most vulnerable, and shelter the economy from the far sterner and more costly measures that would inevitably become necessary later on. We are acting on the principle that a stitch in time saves nine.
The Government will introduce new restrictions in England, carefully judged to achieve the maximum reduction in the R number with the minimum damage to lives and livelihoods. I stress that this is by no means a return to the full lockdown of March. We are not issuing a general instruction to stay at home. We will ensure that schools, colleges and universities stay open, because nothing is more important than the education, health and well-being of our young people. We will ensure that businesses can stay open in a Covid-compliant way. However, we must take action to suppress the disease.
First, we are once again asking office workers who can work from home to do so. In key public services and in all professions where home working is not possible, such as construction or retail, people should continue to attend their workplaces and, like Government, this House will be free to take forward its business in a Covid-secure way, which you, Mr Speaker, have pioneered.
Secondly, from Thursday, all pubs, bars and restaurants must operate a table service only, except for takeaways. Together with all hospitality venues, they must close at 10 pm and to help the police enforce this rule I am afraid that that means, alas, closing and not just calling for last orders, because simplicity is paramount. The same will apply to takeaways, although deliveries can continue thereafter. I am sorry that this will affect many businesses just getting back on their feet, but we must act to stop the virus from being transmitted in bars and restaurants.
Thirdly, we will extend the requirement to wear face coverings to include staff in retail, all users of taxis and private hire vehicles, and staff and customers in indoor hospitality, except when seated at a table to eat or drink.
Fourthly, in retail, leisure and tourism and other sectors, our Covid-secure guidelines will become legal obligations. Businesses will be fined and could be closed if they breach the rules.
Fifthly, now is the time to tighten up the rule of six. I am afraid that from Monday a maximum of 15 people will be able to attend wedding ceremonies and receptions, although up to 30 can still attend a funeral, as now. We will also have to extend the rule of six to all adult indoor team sports.
Finally, we have to acknowledge that the spread of the virus is now affecting our ability to reopen business conferences, exhibitions and large sporting events, so we will not be able to do this from 1 October. I recognise the implications for our sports clubs, which are the life and soul of our communities, and my right honourable friends the Chancellor and the Culture Secretary are working urgently on what we can do now to support them.
These rules—these measures—will only work if people comply. There is nothing more frustrating for the vast majority who do comply—the law-abiding majority—than the sight of a few brazenly defying the rules, so these rules will be enforced by tighter penalties. We have already introduced a fine of up to £10,000 for those who fail to self-isolate, and such fines will now be applied to businesses breaking Covid rules. The penalty for failing to wear a mask or breaking the rule of six will now double to £200 for a first offence. We will provide the police and local authorities with the extra funding they need, a greater police presence on our streets, and the option to draw on military support where required to free up the police.
The measures I have announced all apply in England, and the devolved Administrations are taking similar steps. I spoke yesterday with each of the First Ministers and again today, and I thank them for their collaboration.
The health of everyone in these islands depends on our common success. Already, about 13 million people across England are living under various local restrictions over and above national measures. We will continue to act against local flare-ups, working alongside councils and strengthening measures where necessary.
I want to speak directly to those who were shielding early in the pandemic and who may be anxious about being at greater risk. Following advice from our senior clinicians, our guidance continues to be that you do not need to shield except in local lockdown areas, and we will keep this under constant review.
I must emphasise that if all our actions fail to bring the R below 1, we reserve the right to deploy greater firepower with significantly greater restrictions. I fervently want to avoid taking this step, as do the devolved Administrations, but we will be able to avoid it only if our new measures work and our behaviour changes.
We will spare no effort in developing vaccines, treatments and new forms of mass testing, but unless we palpably make progress, we should assume that the restrictions I have announced will remain in place for perhaps six months. For the time being, the virus is a fact of our lives, and I must tell the House and the country that our fight against it will continue. We will not listen to those who say, ‘Let the virus rip’, nor to those who urge a permanent lockdown. We are taking decisive and appropriate steps to balance saving lives with protecting jobs and livelihoods.
I know all this will have profound consequences for our constituents, so the Government will give the House every opportunity to scrutinise our decisions. In addition to regular Statements and debates, Members will be able to question the Government’s scientific advisers more regularly, gain access to data about their constituencies and join daily calls with my right honourable friend the Paymaster-General.
After six months of restrictions, it would be tempting to hope that the threat has faded and to seek comfort in the belief that if you have avoided the virus so far, you are somehow immune. I have to say that it is that kind of complacency that could be our undoing. If we fail to act together now, we will not only place others at risk, but jeopardise our own futures with the more drastic action that we would inevitably be forced to take.
No British Government would wish to stifle our freedoms in the ways that we have found necessary this year, yet even now we can draw some comfort from the fact that schools, universities and places of worship are staying open, shops can serve their customers, construction workers can go to building sites, and the vast majority of the UK economy can continue moving forwards.
We are also better prepared for a second wave with the ventilators, the personal protective equipment, the dexamethasone, the Nightingale hospitals and a hundred times as much testing as we began this epidemic with. It now falls to each and every one of us to remember the basics: wash our hands, cover our faces, observe social distancing and follow the rules. Then we can fight back against this virus, shelter our economy from even greater damage, protect the most vulnerable in care homes and hospitals, safeguard our NHS and save many more lives. I commend this Statement to the House.”
My Lords, I assume that noble Lords have read the Prime Minister’s Statement, given that in our new circumstances, the noble Baroness does not repeat it. Many of us would have seen it made yesterday in the other House. It is clear that we are now at a point which the whole House would have hoped to avoid. The warnings from the Government’s own advisers are very stark, so when restrictions are needed, they will have our support because we need to avoid any confusion and have clarity in communication. However, perhaps I may raise a few issues with the noble Baroness.
I turn first to testing. The Prime Minister pretty much dismissed this yesterday. The lack of a comprehensive, even world-beating, test, trace and isolate system is making the nation’s efforts to tackle the virus more difficult, but yesterday the Prime Minister said:
“Testing and tracing has very little or nothing to do with the spread or the transmission of the disease.”—[Official Report, Commons, 22/9/20; col. 822.]
Surely the point of having the world-beating system that we are waiting for is to reduce the number of people who will be infected. What is that about? I heard the Prime Minister trying to explain what he meant at Prime Minister’s Questions but, despite a lot of words, I did not understand his explanation, so it is now the turn of the noble Baroness. Perhaps she could try to explain what the Prime Minister really meant. Does his comment that testing and tracing has very little or nothing to do with the spread of the disease mean that that is now the Government’s view, or did the Prime Minister get it wrong and the Government are still committed to a world-beating test, trace and isolate system?
On the new restrictions, we appreciate the difficulties in getting them right. Can the noble Baroness assist your Lordships’ House in understanding the rationale behind them? In many of the areas currently managing more restrictive measures, we have not seen the fall in the number of infections anticipated or hoped for. Were those results factored into the decisions taken for the rest of the country? It would also be helpful if she could say which rules the residents of those areas are now following. Is she confident that the actions being taken now will be effective and at what point will the Government make a judgment on their effectiveness?
Also, can she advise me on two sets of circumstances on which I would like some clarity? If I decide to go out for a curry tonight and I take five other noble Lords with me, that follows the rule of six and the six of us will be able to enjoy our meal in the restaurant. However, if two of those noble Lords come back to the House for the last business, does that mean that our group of six is now four, so two other noble Lords, perhaps from the Cross Benches, can join us for dessert? Is the rule of six the rule at any one point or can the six change during the course of the evening?
I am asking my second question for a friend. If a couple I know are at home with their two kids asleep in bed upstairs, does the rule of six mean that they can have only two friends round to socialise in their home, or can four friends come round? Again, what does the rule of six mean in those circumstances? Can six people be together or do the children, asleep in their beds, count as two of the six people in the home? That is the level of clarity that the Government will have to provide, and if the noble Baroness can respond, that would be really helpful.
On the furlough scheme, the noble Baroness will be aware of how valuable it has been to viable businesses that just need to get through this period so that they can survive until better days. The Government are bringing the scheme to an end for all businesses in all circumstances at the same time. Surely we can do better than that. The noble Baroness may have heard Paul Nowak of the TUC speaking earlier on Radio 4’s “Today” programme. He called for a smarter, targeted version of furlough. She may have heard him offer to work with the Government to bring employer and employee representatives together to help design a scheme that has the kind of flexibility needed to respond to struggling industries—and struggling areas—and will help companies and workers alike to get through what will clearly be a difficult time in the months ahead. That seems a wise, practical and pragmatic suggestion. Will she take it to the Prime Minister today and bring his response back to your Lordships’ House?
The Prime Minister also said yesterday that schools can access the tests they need and that every child with symptoms should automatically get a test. Of course that is right, but if the system is not in place yet, when will it be, and what is the current turnaround time for schools to get the results back?
Finally, this is a terrible virus. Many are suffering from the consequences of long-term Covid infection and others have lost loved ones, while people have had their lives restricted in trying to avoid getting it. The consequences of making the wrong decisions are enormous—literally matters of life and death. We know that there is pressure on the Prime Minister from all directions on what the appropriate course of action is, but these decisions can never be predicated on placating one group or another. We just have to do what is right. I hope that the noble Baroness can answer my questions today—I can see her riffling through her papers—but if she is unable to do so, I hope she will write to me over the next couple of days.
My Lords, I thank the Leader of the House for agreeing to answer questions on the Prime Minister’s Statement yesterday.
The Government now face four tough challenges in combating coronavirus. The first is how to act proportionately to drive down infections and deaths while at the same time allowing as much economic and social activity as possible to continue. This is an extraordinarily difficult balancing act but, if the threat is as severe as the scientists believe, I find it surprising that the rule of six remains intact and allows, for example, individuals from six different households to meet in a restaurant, possibly for several hours, with zero social distancing. If I were a generous-hearted soul, I could invite five noble Lords for breakfast, five different ones for lunch and five different ones for supper. That sounds a lot to me. Can the noble Baroness confirm that Professor Whitty argued for stronger measures than those now being proposed? The rules also appear inconsistent. Why can 30 people attend a funeral but only 15 a wedding? That seems bizarre. Can the noble Baroness explain the science behind that decision?
The second challenge is how to identify those with the virus quickly and then isolate them from the rest of the population. Sadly, the Government’s track record on test, track and trace is hopelessly inadequate. It is miles behind the system devised in Germany, where, for example, anyone entering the country by car can have a prompt test at the side of the motorway, the results of which are quickly relayed to a working app, and where localised delays in getting tests done are so rare that they become major news stories. To argue that the German success and our failures have anything to do with our attitudes towards freedom is both risible and insulting. The Government are at least trying to be clearer on those who have priority in getting a test in future. But does the noble Baroness accept that it seems illogical to exclude from the priority list ancillary staff who work in hospitals, care homes and schools? Surely a caretaker, cleaner or member of the catering staff is just as capable of spreading the virus as a doctor, care worker or teacher.
The third challenge relates to persuading the public to adhere to the rules, and the Government have this week strengthened the stick and the carrot. On the stick, the Government have proposed increased penalties, but they are no good without more effective enforcement. The Prime Minister said yesterday that the Government will provide the police and local authorities with the extra funding they need to do this. But will he really live up to his promise? Up to now, the Government have provided extra resources to local government at levels well below what they believe they need to do their Covid work effectively. Will the noble Baroness confirm that the Government will now make funds available to police forces and local authorities at a level that they, not the Government, judge to be required to do their job properly? On carrots, the Government have announced a new £500 isolation support payment for people on low incomes who have tested positive or been told to self-isolate. What is the definition of “low income”, and how quickly and by what means do they intend to get this extremely sensible initiative up and running?
The fourth challenge relates to the additional economic damage that the new restrictions will bring. The hospitality, arts and sport sectors will be particularly badly hit. We are told that the Chancellor and Business Secretary will bring forward further plans to help support those most affected. But the new restrictions bite from tomorrow. So when will the promised new business support measures be announced and take effect? Businesses have a very small cash cushion to keep them going while the Government decide what they are going to do to support them.
Finally, the Prime Minster expressed the Government’s willingness to give the Commons every opportunity to scrutinise government decisions. This is a sound principle but, as the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hale, forcefully pointed out, Parliament has effectively surrendered its scrutiny role over Covid legislation. The principal Covid Act was passed with barely any debate, and the delay in debating statutory instruments means that by the time we do discuss them they have been in operation for many weeks in most cases. So the scrutiny is, in effect, meaningless.
This deficiency, however, could easily be rectified by the Government. Will the noble Baroness assure the House that future statutory instruments such as the one coming into force tomorrow will be debated at the earliest opportunity? In the specific case of those new rules, and in light of the completion of the debate on the Agriculture Bill yesterday, can she give any reason why the House should not discuss the new statutory instrument tomorrow, in advance of it coming into effect, rather than at a later date when it will already have done so?
For the Government’s measures to work, individuals across the country have got to believe that they are necessary and proportionate. The scientists can set out the objective evidence, but only the Government can decide on the response. Bringing Parliament and the nation with them will be vital in the months ahead. To achieve that, they will need less bombast and more openness. I hope that we might now get it.
I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness for their comments and questions. I assure the noble Baroness that the Government remain committed to the test and trace system, and it will clearly play an important part in our efforts to continue to tackle the virus. I am sure she will be pleased to know that the test and trace app will be rolled out nationally tomorrow, further enhancing that programme. It is designed to work alongside the traditional contact tracing services and testing to help people understand if they are at risk. On her questions about the rules, my personal interpretation is that she could indeed invite two noble Lords to join her for curry if two had left, as the rule is about six people. Children are counted as individuals, so they are counted as one of the six.
Both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness talked about evidence. Certainly both the Government and the scientific advisers looked at a range of evidence in order to come up with the package that we have.
The noble Lord and the noble Baroness quite rightly talked about the economic impacts, which we are all extremely aware of. They will know that through the measures we have taken so far we have protected 12 million people and jobs through the furlough and self-employed schemes, at a cost of £40 billion. However, I entirely accept their points about the impact that this virus is still having, and the impact it is still having on our economy. I can certainly assure the noble Baroness that my right honourable friend the Chancellor, and those across government, are working with employers, representatives, unions and businesses to continue to work out exactly what the best form of support for businesses in all sectors is. We keep that package under constant review.
The noble Lord, Lord Newby, asked about the prioritisation of testing. He is absolutely right: at the moment prioritisation is for those who work in acute clinical care, broader NHS staff and people in care homes, and targeted testing for teaching staff. He is obviously quite right to mention other individuals who work within these settings, and we will keep the prioritisation under review. As we increase our testing and look towards the 500,000 tests that we hope to get to by the end of October, we hope to be able to offer tests much more widely and include more people within that prioritisation.
On face coverings, the noble Lord, Lord Newby, talked about indoor settings with lots of people. That is why we are now mandating face coverings in indoor settings and enclosed places which are freely accessed by the public, where it may not be possible to maintain social distancing. He will be aware that we already had those measures in place for shops and supermarkets and on public transport. It is for that very reason that we are now extending the mandatory wearing of face coverings to hospitality settings, taxis and private hire vehicles—again, in enclosed settings where it is particularly difficult for people to maintain social distancing.
The noble Lord also asked about extra funding for the police and local authorities. We have already announced an initial £50 million to support the range of enforcement activity we would expect to see in relation to the new rules that we have just announced. It will be up to the police to decide how they wish to deploy that—for instance, it could be used for increasing patrols to enforce social contact rules, deploying police to high-risk areas where there is rising concern, and providing more support to local authorities and NHS Test and Trace where quarantine and self-isolation breaches are being escalated. Of course, those are just some of the ways in which this funding could be used at a local level.
In relation to the new payment that was announced, the £500 is targeted at those on low incomes and who cannot work from home. It is an additional payment, on top of statutory sick pay and existing benefits or support, such as universal credit, employment support allowance, local housing allowance or hardship fund payments. It will become available for those who are required to self-isolate from 28 September. Local authorities are working quickly to set up these support schemes, and we expect them to be in place by 12 October. Anyone who has had to self-isolate from 28 September will receive backdated payments. That is, I hope, the detail of the new scheme.
The noble Lord talked about parliamentary scrutiny, which is of course extremely important. Each SI has undergone full scrutiny, in line with the requirements of its parent Act. We have been using the appropriate parliamentary procedures for considering regulations, including waiting for the JCSI and the SLSC to report on them before they are debated. On Monday, we will have a more general debate, in line with the commitment we made, on the Coronavirus Act itself.
The noble Lord asked about tomorrow. As the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton—who is sitting there—will be well aware, we have two days of full discussions on coronavirus SIs, so I do not think we can criticise the House or anyone within it for the work they are doing on this. We will be discussing the SIs that were to be in the Grand Committee in the Chamber. We are dealing with them in order: there are deadlines within which we have to discuss these SIs, and that is the order in which we are taking them. I hope the noble Lord will accept that, as well as the fact that we have two coronavirus Statements today, we are taking this very seriously and ensuring parliamentary scrutiny.
Sorry, I did have an answer on schools. Our advice for children is very clear: they should have a test only if they have symptoms. Obviously, we are well aware that there is a capacity issue in the system at the moment, which we are trying to address, so there are perhaps longer waits than we would like for tests. However, 64.7% of people who have a test get the results back within 24 hours.
We now come to the 30 minutes allocated for Back-Bench questions. Please keep questions and answers brief, so that I can call the maximum number of speakers.
My Lords, I join others in thanking the noble Baroness for taking questions on the Prime Minister’s Statement, and in so doing draw your Lordships’ attention to my declared interests.
The first wave of Covid-19 earlier this year saw major challenges for the NHS, in being able to treat patients with non-Covid conditions, such as cancer and cardiovascular disease, while dealing with the large numbers of patients needing admission for acute Covid conditions. How will Her Majesty’s Government determine whether the measures now in place are having sufficient impact to be confident that the NHS will be able to manage not only patients requiring Covid-19 admissions but those with non-Covid conditions requiring urgent treatment during the winter? This is a critically important issue. Do they have modelling available? How will they determine if these measures are going to have the desired impact and, if not, how will they act to ensure that the NHS will be able to look after all patients, both Covid and non-Covid?
I assure the noble Lord that the department is working extremely hard with the NHS to ensure an absolute minimum of disruption to other treatments. It was thanks only to the incredible work of staff that, even at the peak of demand earlier this year, hospitals were still able to look after two non-Covid patients for every Covid patient. A similar picture was seen in primary, community and mental health services. The most effective way to ensure that other treatments are not disrupted is to make sure we tackle this disease and try to make sure we do not have huge numbers of hospitalisations of patients with Covid. We are working towards that. We are also working on the principle that the most urgent treatments, including mental health support, should be brought back first. I assure the noble Lord that is a priority for the department.
My Lords, what matters most in this crisis is not the number of coronavirus infections but the deaths that occur. All deaths are tragic, but I regret to say that they are mostly among the elderly, the frail and those with comorbidities. Two weeks ago, the number of deaths was approximately 11 or 12 a day. In the last seven days it has just about doubled. The number fluctuates, but it appears to be going up. Still, it is only between 1% and 2% of the average daily death rate in this country. That is after three months of greater social mingling.
I regret to say that this policy is incoherent, illogical and, without a vaccine, unending. It is doing incalculable harm to livelihoods, lives, the economy, our country’s future and, worst of all, our children’s future. Will my noble friend the Lord Privy Seal take this message back to the Prime Minister at the next Cabinet? Whatever focus groups may say, the British public are fed up and will not support the restrictions announced in this Statement any more than I do.
My noble friend has been very clear in his views on the actions being taken and I respect them. He speaks for people who feel that way but, I am afraid, as the CMO and Chief Scientific Adviser set out earlier this week, we know that death rates are a lagging indicator. We have raised the alert level because we have seen that the doubling rate of cases could be between seven and 20 days, and that in the last fortnight daily hospital admissions have doubled. There is enough concern that we have felt it absolutely necessary to take this action early so that we can try to stop a devastating second spike. I completely accept and understand the points he makes about the economy—I touched on that in my answers earlier—but we strongly feel we need to take this action. I am very sorry—I think we all are—for the inconvenience it causes, but it is worth it to save lives.
My Lords, I am looking forward to my invitation to curry supper. More seriously, I think I speak on behalf of all the faith communities in welcoming the Prime Minister’s continued affirmation of the importance of places of worship being open, albeit with restrictions, not just for the private benefit of the adherents of a particular faith but for wider community cohesion and well-being, bearing in mind not least that many of these places host food banks and other community care initiatives. I hope that, if any further measures are needed, that community well-being dimension will be kept in mind alongside others.
I return to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Newby, about the 30 and the 15 attendance at particular kinds of events and add to that the announcement made, I believe, this afternoon that as of Monday attendance at life events will be restricted to six. There is some confusion about definitions here. As a narrower question, can the noble Baroness confirm that an ordination service, of which there will be dozens all over the country in the next few weeks, is not a life event for this purpose but rather a regular part of church and community life? Restricting attendance to six in a space such as Canterbury Cathedral would seem a bit odd when tourists can visit every day.
I thank the right reverend Prelate. I am afraid I am not so on top of that detail as to be able to give him an answer I would have confidence in, but I will certainly take his point back to MHCLG, which I believe is the lead department on this. I am sure that Ministers there will want to talk to representatives from the Church and other faiths to make sure the rules make sense.
My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that there has been a considerable rise in mental and emotional ill health since the pandemic began? Many people are fearful, anxious and depressed. In the Government’s messaging on the virus, does she agree that there needs to be a balance between frightening people about the seriousness of the disease so that they will obey the rules and reassuring people that, if they do obey the rules, they will probably be okay? Does she think the Prime Minister got that balance right yesterday? I am afraid I do not.
The noble Baroness is right about how incredibly important it is that we get messaging right. We are in a very complicated situation and everyone is doing their best. She is also right about concerns over mental health; for those with severe needs or in crisis, all NHS mental health providers have established 24/7 mental health crisis lines, and PHE has published its surveillance tracker to monitor the impacts of Covid-19 on the population’s mental health. These are proactive steps to help ensure that our response to the effects of the pandemic is shaped by emerging data. I am sure work such as that will help feed in as we think about messaging now and going forward.
My Lords, during the Statement yesterday the Prime Minister spoke of Parliament’s ability to
“take forward its business in a covid-secure way”.—[Official Report, Commons, 22/9/20; col. 798.]
Does the noble Baroness the Leader of the House recognise that there are grave concerns about how we are taking that business forward and the quality and effectiveness of current debate and scrutiny? As the noble Lord, Lord Newby, said, particularly concerning is the retrospective and often totally irrelevant nature of our scrutiny of statutory instruments which have been in force for weeks or months before they are ever considered in the House. In her response to the noble Lord, the noble Baroness did not seem to recognise that there was a problem. I urge her to read the words of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hale, and of her noble friend Lord Forsyth in the debate last Friday, and reconsider.
I am sorry if the noble Baroness did not think I gave due weight to that response. As I have said, we are very concerned to ensure we have scrutiny. We have ensured that each SI has undergone full scrutiny, in line with the parent Act, and worked around the appropriate parliamentary procedures. At this point I also thank the House authorities for all the work they have done to help us ensure we are a Covid-secure workplace. I hope noble Lords, while finding it frustrating, will continue to appreciate that we are working in a hybrid way and doing remote voting in an attempt to make sure that as many noble Lords as possible can continue the important work we do in this House in scrutinising legislation.
Following the lead of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester, I thank the Government for the clear, helpful and sensitive guidelines given to the Jewish community for celebrating Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, last weekend. It was Rosh Hashanah, but not entirely as we have always known it.
As more local lockdowns will inevitably follow, bringing difficulties for people and businesses—perhaps even a good crisis to exploit, were I the shadow Education Secretary—can my noble friend the Leader of the House explain what extra help will be given to businesses which find themselves in local lockdown areas?
Businesses in England required to close due to local lockdowns or targeted restrictions can now receive grants worth £1,500 every three weeks. To be eligible for the grant, a business must have been required to close due to local Covid-19 restrictions. The largest businesses will receive £1,500; smaller businesses will receive £1,000. Payments are triggered by a national decision to close businesses in a high-incidence area. That is specific help for businesses within local lockdowns but, as I alluded to in answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, we are keeping the broader package of national support under review. That is why we have introduced things such as the £2 billion Kickstart Scheme, paying employers £2,000 for every apprentice they hire. There will be national measures and those specific measures I mentioned for local lockdown areas.
My Lords, the Statement says the Government
“will provide the police … with the extra funding they need”.—[Official Report, Commons, 22/9/20; col. 798.]
If that is the case, what exactly is the role of the military to free up the police, given that promise of adequate funding for the police?
The police will have the option to draw on military support if they require it. This would follow tried and tested mechanisms and so, for instance, could involve the military back-filling certain duties, such as office roles or guarding protected sites. What this is absolutely not about is giving additional powers to the military or having them replace the police in enforcement roles. They would not be handing out fines.
My Lords, I was pleased to hear the Leader of the House mention an increase in testing to 500,000; I hope that that includes a rapid turnaround time. My question is about the ambition, mentioned by the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister, to use testing as a mass screening tool. The current test and track system has lots of problems but mass screening has even bigger problems, so I hope that before it is introduced, the Government will publish the plans and consult beforehand.
I am sure that the department will take soundings and work with as many experts as possible as we look to develop this. It is a future aim to start testing people to identify those who do not have coronavirus and are not infectious with a quick, simple, scalable test but we are not near that yet, so we will certainly work with experts and companies to develop it. We will draw as much expertise as we can because, along with the development of vaccines, this will be critical hopefully to moving back to some kind of normal life.
My Lords, the announcement yesterday hit sport very hard at all levels—not just those levels that are seen on television but community sport in whatever form. I believe that Ian Botham is to be introduced into this House on 6 October. Will my noble friend guarantee that sports will receive the same proportion of grants as have been given to the arts by the time that he arrives in this Chamber?
I thank my noble friend. Like him and many others, I am extremely disappointed that we have had to pause these events. I was able to get one of 1,000 tickets to see Norwich play football on Saturday as one of the pilot events and, in terms of the way that was held, I thought that it worked very well.
We absolutely understand the economic consequences, as he rightly says, particularly for community and grass-roots sports, which so depend on spectators. I know that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State is working at pace with representatives from a variety of sports to ensure that we can come up with some kind of package to help them.
My Lords, there is a well-supported view that, in or close to lockdown, the most elderly should be allowed to meet close family and friends, or to self-isolate if they prefer, because of the human importance of such contacts. They should not be legally imprisoned for the rest of their natural lives in lockdown. Will the Government give this view serious consideration?
I can certainly assure the noble and gallant Lord that such considerations are at the forefront of everyone’s mind. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, talked about the impact on mental health generally; of course, many of us have not seen some of our relatives for a long time, which is very painful for them and for those of us who cannot see them. I assure him that we are considering that very carefully. It is why we are trying to take packages of measures that continue, at this point, to allow social contact, because we know how important it is. However, we will obviously have to take action if we cannot stop the virus continuing to increase, because it is critical that we save as many lives as we can.
The Statement drew attention to the fears of those who were on the shielding list and those who are shielding others. What additional practical support is being reactivated to ensure that those people can remain Covid safe? In relation to businesses and private rentals in the commercial sector, what are the Government doing about the exorbitantly high commercial rentals that are destroying local businesses, whose profits have fallen at the moment?
The noble Baroness will be aware that, in the announcement yesterday, the advice remains that the clinically extremely vulnerable do not need to shield at the moment, although this will be kept under review. Obviously, if things change, packages of support will be looked at. Local directors of public health are also able to offer specific advice for clinically vulnerable residents. Of course, in local lockdown areas there will be different packages of support, so that is absolutely something we will consider as and when the guidance changes. In relation to rents, I am afraid that I will have to write to the noble Baroness as I do not have information on that particular issue.
Following on from the comments of my noble friend Lord Hayward, my noble friend the Lord Privy Seal will be aware that, in May, the whole rugby league family applauded the Government for the £16 million lifeline that they made available to the sport. That money was, however, predicated on a 12-week lockdown, and yesterday’s announcement on pausing the return of spectators could have a devastating impact on the viability of professional rugby league clubs both large and small. Can my noble friend therefore assure the House that the Government will engage urgently with the Rugby Football League to seek a quick solution to this issue and examine what more can be done to ensure a future for a sport that is so deeply embedded in communities such as mine in Leeds?
I thank my noble friend. As I said to my noble friend Lord Hayward, the Secretary of State is working on this as we speak. He is well aware of the issues faced. As my noble friend said, we have already worked with the rugby league to help but, as he said, with the new situation unfortunately facing sport, we will certainly work to see what we can do because so many clubs in a range of different sports are absolutely central to their local communities and we want to make sure that they continue to thrive once this crisis is over.
My Lords, I thank the Leader of the House for being here to speak to this Statement today. I want to talk about people who need to remain at work, of which nothing was said in the Statement yesterday. What are the Government doing about PPE stocks, based on the highest prediction of need? Does the UK hold sufficient stock for the NHS, voluntary and independent providers of health and social care, and domiciliary care services? If so, for how many days? How rapidly can the stock be replenished and what proportions are now manufactured in the UK? Are the Government’s distribution plans for PPE satisfactory, and have they adequately tested a system for distribution over the summer?
Obviously, PPE was a significant issue earlier this year. Lots of lessons have been learned. The department continues to work to make sure that we have plans in place. The noble Baroness will be aware that, for instance, we provided more than 250 million items of PPE. We are working with both the public and the private sector to ensure that we have robust plans in place so that we can make PPE available as and when it is needed. Obviously, one of the priorities, as I have just identified, is care homes.
My Lords, would it not be deeply unfortunate if the economic devastation that has already been caused by Covid—devastation that will continue following yesterday’s announcement—were compounded by a self-inflicted wound; namely, the total dislocation of the channel ports, as envisaged by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster this morning?
My noble friend is absolutely right: ensuring that we protect jobs and support those in work has been central to our work so far. As I mentioned in a previous answer, we have put in place an unprecedented package of support for businesses, including grants, loans and the furlough scheme. We will continue to support business to make sure that we have a thriving economy once we come out of this crisis.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, the noble Lord, Lord Newby, and the right reverent Prelate the Bishop of Rochester have all effectively set out the scientific and medical problems with the rule of six and the lack of clarity or logic in the rules announced. Will the Government consider, instead, having rules that will be enforced and guidance for the public, with a clear division between the two? Confusion between the two has been a significant source of problems. Rather than, for example, threatening to roll out the Army for two groups of neighbours numbering seven who are standing at a distance and briefly exchanging greetings in the park, will they acknowledge that it is the vulnerable and communities already suffering discrimination who are most likely to be affected by such enforcement action?
I have made it clear that the military will not be rolling out but may be called upon to help with certain back-office duties, so I do not accept that characterisation by the noble Baroness. Of course, she and others have correctly talked about the need for clear messaging and guidance, which is, and will continue to be, at the forefront of our minds.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for the Statement and for responding this afternoon. She will be aware of the massive investment that restaurants, pubs, clubs, bars and casinos have made to be Covid secure, so the devastation to the night-time economy following the announcement of the 10 pm closure will be considerable. The Prime Minister said that it is true that the number of new cases is growing fastest among those aged between 20 and 29. How are the Government specifically targeting that group to ensure that they stay safe, maintain a safe distance and are not super-spreaders?
Obviously, we continue to put out as much public messaging as possible, and we are looking at social media and other ways of getting the attention of that group of people. The other issue we need to recognise is that unfortunately, cases are now rising throughout all age groups, which is a concern. The package of measures we have put together is an attempt to stop the rise in cases while ensuring that the economy continues, albeit in a somewhat restricted fashion. We do not want another full national lockdown. We hope that, added together, this package of measures, as well as everyone sticking to the basics of social distancing, good handwashing and wearing face coverings, will help to stop the rise that we are seeing at the moment, before we have to take further and more unpalatable measures.
My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register and apologise to the House for omitting to do so in the debates today on the two rental Motions.
What assessments have the Government and their advisers made of the evidence from Sweden, which has managed so much better by not accepting the modelling assumptions predicting significant deaths? What estimates have government advisers and the CMO made of the number of deaths from undetected or untreated other illnesses such as cancer, stroke, heart failure and suicide, which have resulted from the NHS’s seemingly singular focus on one serious illness? We may not be choosing between deaths from Covid and the economy; maybe the choice has been between deaths from Covid and deaths from other causes.
Certainly, the Prime Minister, the CMO and other advisers have been talking to their Swedish counterparts regularly in order to learn lessons from there. Indeed, they have also been talking to other European countries such as Belgium, which have taken measures, in order to learn internationally. We are all learning the best way to deal with this virus, so I can certainly reassure my noble friend of that. As I said, we are trying to restore the NHS services that were suspended while we dealt with the initial impact of Covid. NHS England has issued guidance for the return of non-Covid health services to near normal levels, making use of the available capacity while protecting the most vulnerable from Covid. As I said, this is something that the department is very much focused on. The way to minimise disruption to other treatments is to deal with this virus as effectively as we can, so that we do not have a huge spike of people with Covid being admitted to hospital.
My Lords, all supplementary questions have now been asked.
Restriction of Public Sector Exit Payments Regulations 2020
Motion to Approve
My Lords, each year, hundreds of millions of pounds are spent on exit payments to public sector workers that exceed £100,000. The money funding these payments comes from taxpayers. This statutory instrument will fulfil the Government’s 2015 manifesto commitment to end six-figure pay-offs by capping public sector exit payments at £95,000. This House discussed the proposals in great depth when considering the parent Act, the Enterprise Act 2016.
Public sector workers play a vital role in the running of our economy. Earlier this year, we accepted the recommendations of the independent pay review bodies and announced a significant, real-terms pay increase for around 900,000 public sector workers. For the majority, this was the third inflation-busting pay rise in a row. But we must ensure all aspects of public sector pay and renumeration deliver value for money for the taxpayer. It is our view that these large exit payments do not deliver that aim.
The coronavirus is having a very significant impact on the economy, labour market and fiscal position, and the Government will need to continue to take this into account in setting public sector pay and renumeration. Exit payments are important to an employer’s ability to reform and react to new circumstances. They are also an important source of support for individuals as they find new employment or as a bridge until retirement age.
However, these payments must be value for money and fair to the taxpayer. The high exit payments we have seen granted in recent years clearly breach this principle. That is why the Government are taking forward regulations to cap public sector exit payments as £95,000. The proposed cap, amounting to almost six times the maximum statutory redundancy payment entitlement, will still offer a significant level of compensation and support to employees.
The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee noted these regulations as a statutory instrument of interest. I will address the points raised in its report. First, a number of bodies are exempt from these regulations. These include the armed services, the Security Service, the Secret Intelligence Service and the Government Communications Headquarters. This is appropriate due to their unique career requirements. Often, individuals working in these fields experience lifelong impacts, sometimes at early ages. It is right these individuals should be properly compensated, and their reward packages are typically designed to reflect that.
The regulations also outline which payments are deemed an exit payment for the purpose of the cap. The Government are clear that all payments conditional on an individual’s exit from employment must be in scope of the cap to avoid opportunities for manipulation, with a few exceptions. Payments such as death in service will not be capped and should be paid in full.
The second point raised by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee is that public sector pension schemes may need amending to account for these regulations. Where required, these changes are the responsibility of the parent department. Some of these amendments are already under way, with the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government publishing its consultation on amendments to the Local Government Pension Scheme on 7 September this year.
Prior to amendments being made where the application of the cap would result in an employer being unable to make a pension strain payment due to pension scheme rules, it may instead pay the pension scheme member an equivalent cash sum. The aggregate of that cash sum and any other exit payments must not exceed the cap.
The Government accept that in some limited circumstances, it will be appropriate for employees to receive an exit payment that exceeds £95,000, including where imposing the cap would cause genuine hardship. To account for these circumstances, a waiver has been designed that ensures flexibility, while maintaining an appropriate level of scrutiny from Ministers.
Today, the Government are taking forward regulations that deliver a long-term manifesto commitment and ensure value for money for the taxpayer. The regulations do this in a proportionate and thorough way, while ensuring the flexibility to protect the most vulnerable. I beg to move.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I have briefings from the LGA, the Association of Local Authority Chief Executives and the BMA. All have the same concern—that lower-paid staff will be adversely affected.
The Government’s aim to reduce the large redundancy payments made to highly paid staff in the public sector is one to which the public readily subscribe. But the way the Government are implementing this not only breaks the law but affects those on lower pay.
The pension strain payments should not be included in the cap. In 2019, ALACE indicated that including pension strain would affect long-serving staff earning well under £40,000. For these staff in their mid to late-50s, with service between of 35 and 39 years, earning between £31,000 and £34,000, the strain would exceed £100,000 if made redundant. Their redundancy payments would be well under £20,000. The regulations would mean that they would all suffer a reduced pension for the rest of their lives. I ask the Minister to confirm that this is, indeed, the case.
Junior doctors are similarly affected, in some cases having to make declarations for sums as small as £200. These are the very people who, up and down the country, are currently saving lives on the Covid-19 wards.
What the Government are proposing is for contractual arrangements between employers and employees to be broken and for those on very low earnings to be penalised. For local authorities, this is direct interference with the role and responsibility of elected councillors, who are well able to deal with these matters through full council. Instead, it will be dealt with by the Secretary of State.
This is at a time when MHCLG, as the Minister said, is currently conducting a consultation on the Local Government Pension Scheme. The regulations under this SI are due to come in immediately, well before the consultation on the LGPS has finished. It would seem that the right hand of government does not understand what the left hand is doing.
In addition to there being little communication between government departments, no equality impact assessment has been produced. Why not? Are the Government afraid that, if they produce one, it will be obvious that the bread-and-butter staff of public service are being caught in this trap?
However, I note that the Armed Forces and security services are exempt from this regulation. “Good,” many will say, “our service men and women deserve to be exempt”. But what of the rear admirals, air vice-marshals and lieutenant-generals, in cushy jobs at the Ministry of Defence, earning £120,000 to £150,000? Surely, they should not be exempt. The Government have got this wrong and should realise such and withdraw this SI.
I declare my interest as a vice-president and former chairman of the Local Government Association. I am pleased to speak this afternoon.
The regulations before us bring into force the exit payment cap legislated for in 2015. I supported the principle of ensuring the best value for money by making payments to employees back when the House agreed this legislation, and that remains the case today. However, I have to raise concerns about the unintended consequences of the implementation of the regulations.
As my time is limited, I will focus on timing, which has been mentioned in part before. The regulations will come into force before the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is able to bring into force its changes to the pension regulations. The concern is that without the MHCLG regulations, the timing could lead to employees continuing to receive full pension payments despite the cap. This is because the exit payments the Government are seeking to limit are often made up of pension entitlements.
These regulations prevent the council paying the scheme the full cost of the employee’s redundancy entitlement but do not remove the employee’s legal right to the full pension payment. Therefore, the gap between what the council will pay and the amount that the employee will receive will need to be made up by the Local Government Pension Scheme until such time as the MHCLG pensions regulations are passed. That is clearly not the Government’s intention, and I would be grateful if the Minister could use this opportunity to provide some reassurances about the situation and about the legal confusion that today’s regulations are likely to cause.
As I said at the start, I support in principle the Government’s aim of ensuring that taxpayers’ money is spent wisely. In my time as a council leader, I took pride in how efficiently and effectively my council was run. However, it cannot be sensible to create entirely avoidable uncertainty for council employees or to put additional strain on the Local Government Pension Scheme and limit councils’ ability to restructure or reorganise at a time when local government faces significant financial pressures and many councils are looking to work differently. I hope that the Minister can use the opportunity today to reassure the House on the timing of the regulations, as they are causing a lot of concern in local government.
My Lords, this is not my area of expertise but since April I have been assisting Exeter City Council with its Covid response, chairing a visitor economy recovery group, from which I have learned first hand about the dedication and diligence of local government staff, the current unprecedented demand for their services and the budgetary cliff off which they are being driven.
These regulations come at a challenging time for local government. Although I generally support the aim of reining in six-figure public sector pay-offs to high earners, that is not the concern. The worry is the impact, as discussed by the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, of the pension strain payments for long-serving local government staff earning under £50,000. Those who have worked for many years in housing, benefits, environmental health or social work, and those who might have turned down much better-paid private work to continue their dedicated public service, stand to lose out on pension benefits that they have worked towards for decades if they are made redundant or seek early retirement after the age of 55. Why is that?
This is not a new issue. I see from Hansard that it was raised a number of times in November 2015, along with the serious concerns being raised now by the Local Government Association and the ALACE, which were well rehearsed nearly five years ago.
Local government is staring into a very bleak winter, with redundancies looking inevitable. The regulations as drafted will hit the pensions of the longest-serving and the most modestly paid. They will remove much-needed staffing autonomy from local councils, and, given that there is no equality impact assessment, they may well impact certain groups disproportionately, but we do not know that. Exeter City Council, for example, has over 700 staff members, whose average age is over 50. Why has no EIA been published?
I understand that the Government’s preferred solution is to change the Local Government Pension Scheme to avoid significant pension reductions. However, the MHCLG consultations commence this month but do not close until November. Why do these changes to local government pensions not take place at the same time as the regulations, and why wait until now to begin a consultation?
Loyal long-term local government employees are being poorly treated and taken for granted. This is not the message that the Government should send out just as they tighten the lockdown. What assurances can the Minister provide?
Finally, I understand that the medical professional bodies, such as the GMC, are concerned that they might be included under these regulations. Will the Minister please provide some clarification on that point?
My Lords, although I recognise that these regulations will not apply in Northern Ireland, the fact that devolved policy on public pensions and compensation is broadly benchmarked against terms in GB means that they remain of clear relevance to employers and employees in the Province.
I agree with the Government that it is important that public sector exit payments are proportionate and fair to the taxpayer. There has been an increasing number of six-figure sums paid out that exceed three times the average annual salary. However, at the same time, I would not favour a blanket cap that fails to allow circumstances to be considered on a case-by-case basis. The safeguards built into this legislation to waive the cap in cases of illness, death and statutory redundancy pay, for instance, are therefore positive.
The role of exit payments is vital to an employer’s ability to make reforms and broaden the skills and talent base for the future. The use of exit payments as part of early retirement arrangements often incentivises young people to enter a specialism where there will be gaps in the skill base in the future. I think, for example, of the previous scheme for mental health nurses in Northern Ireland, which allows those who entered the scheme several decades ago to retire at 55 without detriment. This positive role that exit payments can play should be retained, albeit with a recognition that we need to balance it against the interests of the public purse.
It is important that those whose early retirement could be disrupted by these arrangements are not disadvantaged by being unable to re-enter the workforce to apply their skills to temporary roles in our hospitals and schools that desperately need to be filled —although without, of course, taking jobs from young people who desire full-time employment. We need to see a close and regular review of the impacts of the regulations. Back in Northern Ireland, it will be important for local Ministers to review the changes in England to ensure that public sector roles and payments in Northern Ireland are both competitive and fair.