House of Lords
Tuesday 27 October 2020
The House met in a hybrid proceeding.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Bristol.
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? Equally, I ask that Ministers’ answers are also brief. I call the noble Lord, Lord Oates, to ask the first Oral Question.
My Lords, sadly we have not seen sufficient progress towards the economic and political reforms that the Government themselves set out. The onus must be on the Zimbabwean Government to deliver that progress. Our policy remains to support the people of Zimbabwe in moving towards a more democratic, stable and prosperous country.
My Lords, do the Government recognise that, if we continue with our current policy, we will see the same results—injustice and repression continuing to be visited on the Zimbabwean people by their Government, a growing humanitarian crisis and the need for ever-increasing amounts of emergency aid to prevent starvation? So will the Minister consider convening a round table of experts to develop a more strategic political and economic approach, including looking at how a post-Covid Marshall plan for the region, accessible to countries that met specified governance and rule-of-law standards, could stimulate both economic recovery and democratic renewal in Zimbabwe and further afield?
My Lords, as I said, we have not seen the progress that we want and, like the noble Lord, we want to see both economic recovery and democratic renewal. So I am very happy to meet with the noble Lord to discuss that idea and to help bring that about.
My Lords, Zimbabwe continues to have high rates of gender assaults throughout the country. Can my noble friend say what progress has been made by a DfID-launched programme, started 18 months ago, called Stopping Abuse and Female Exploitation?
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for highlighting this issue. Even before the pandemic, Zimbabwe already had one of the highest prevalence rates of violence against women. We are investing in trying to help stop gender-based violence: as my noble friend said, we have funded a preventing sexual exploitation and abuse co-ordinator within Zimbabwe, and we are also working hard on a programme to stop abuse and female exploitation.
Would the Minister agree, first, that, with over half the population facing food insecurity, family farms deserve much greater priority and need more international support? Mozambique was a good example of that. Secondly, would she agree that the UK has a historic responsibility to join Zimbabwe in resolving the land reform issue, along with compensation for evicted farmers, so that, in time, the country can return to food self-sufficiency?
My Lords, we note the signing of a recent $3.5 billion compensation deal between the Zimbabwean Government and farmers for improvements to land, but we remain concerned that the agreement is not underpinned by the finance necessary to deliver the agreement. Officials at the British embassy in Harare speak regularly with a full range of stakeholders, who are interested in reaching an agreement on compensation.
My Lords, the Zimbabweans are a people of truly democratic spirit who are ruled by a venal and vicious mob of soldiers and policemen who have survived the demise of Robert Mugabe, to whom they owe their positions. Now they are systematically robbing and suppressing the nation. This country has profited greatly from an influx of Zimbabweans, who work as nurses, doctors, teachers and others. Will the Government acknowledge this debt and give sanctuary to those such as journalists, authors and churchmen who now find themselves in peril?
My Lords, I join the noble Lord in paying tribute to the contribution that people from Zimbabwe have made in this country. As I said, we are still working to try to see the promised reforms. We have been clear that a lack of meaningful economic and political reform, as well as the ongoing human rights violations, means that the Government of Zimbabwe are far from achieving the level of reform that we need to see. We will work closely with like-minded partners to continue to raise concerns, press for respect of the constitution and see the sustained implementation of the reforms that have been committed to.
My Lords, last weekend an extravaganza in Zimbabwe to launch a people’s protest against sanctions resulted in demonstrations outside German embassies and 14 likes on Facebook. More telling, I think, was the action, led by South Africa’s President, Cyril Ramaphosa, of the African Union and the Southern African Development Community, calling for their unconditional removal, which received the robust UK response that corruption has driven investors away, not sanctions, leaving Zimbabweans struggling in poverty. Will the Minister recognise that eminent Africans such as the past President of Botswana, Ian Khama, are calling for a special SADC summit to address poverty and human rights abuses in the region, and will the Government work with other donors to support this initiative?
My Lords, the UK is committed to working in partnership with the African Union as well as the Southern African Development Community and other international organisations. We will continue that work, alongside the international community, to help support good governance, respect for human rights and genuine political and economic reform in Zimbabwe.
My Lords, I return to the point that the noble Baroness has just mentioned in terms of how we build support in civil society to defend human rights and stop the abuses. Have the Government got a strategy for working with civil society, including faith groups? I specifically ask the Minister whether she can work with the TUC and its international affiliates to ensure that we support workers who are organised in Zimbabwe to defend their own human rights.
My Lords, the UK supports the political and human rights of Zimbabweans through reinforcing our diplomatic engagement, but also specifically supporting civil society organisations. We work with Zimbabwean citizens to help hold the state to account for its use of resources and respect for human rights, and we provide support to over 50 civil society organisations focused on the defence of human rights. I will certainly follow up on the noble Lord’s suggestion of directly engaging with the TUC on this matter.
My Lords, my noble friend just made reference to democracy in Zimbabwe, which is clearly sadly lacking. Could she give an indication of the work that this Government are undertaking with the EU and Commonwealth in relation to preparations for the next elections because, if the groundwork is not done now in relation to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, constituencies and free access to the media, the next elections will be stolen like so many others?
My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. As we look forward to the elections in 2023, a lot needs to be done to ensure a level playing field. The 2018 elections were an acknowledged improvement, but our observer mission still highlighted significant shortcomings. We will continue to engage with the Commonwealth and the EU, alongside the Government of Zimbabwe, on the observer-mission recommendations.
Is the Minister aware that President Mnangagwa’s niece was arrested in Harare yesterday for attempting to smuggle six kilograms of gold to Dubai? At a time when there have been no prosecutions for corruption, despite overwhelming evidence of gross corruption by ZANU-PF government officials, what measures can Her Majesty’s Government and the European Union take to ensure the independence of the judiciary in Zimbabwe, and what measures can be taken to encourage the South African Government to use their political and economic leverage with Zimbabwe to help resolve the crisis?
My Lords, I am afraid that I was not aware of the noble Lord’s information on the arrest yesterday. We are working closely with our partners in the EU to try to avoid corruption and we will continue to do so with the African Union and South Africa to try to reduce corruption in Zimbabwe.
My Lords, what specific steps have the Government taken to sanction those responsible, including government Ministers, for massive human rights violations in Zimbabwe, such as the abduction and torture of Joana Mamombe and her colleagues in June? She continues to be viciously harassed through the criminal justice system, and police brutality is continuing with impunity: for example, throwing tear gas into a crowded bus on 12 October.
My Lords, the UK remains aligned to the EU’s restrictive measures on Zimbabwe. Suspended targeted measures are in place against three current and former security sector chiefs, and Grace Mugabe. The Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018 now provides the legal basis for the UK to impose autonomous sanctions, and we are in the process of considering our approach to the future sanctions regime in Zimbabwe.
My Lords, the FCO has tended to look at things by country and DfID has often looked at things across the region. Given the effectiveness of the African Union in the coronavirus crisis in getting countries to work together, is the new department looking at how best to help the region and, with it, Zimbabwe?
My Lords, the creation of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office does offer further opportunities to help integrate development and diplomacy into a single new department that aims to bring together the best of our diplomatic and development efforts. We will continue to work with the African Union—I agree with the noble Baroness that it has done a sterling job on Covid-19—in order to try to bring about long-lasting change.
Covid-19: Financial Support for High Street Retailers
My Lords, we have abolished business rates for high street retailers for 12 months as part of the Government’s support during the pandemic and have extended the moratorium on commercial landlords’ right to forfeiture for non-payment of rent. The Chancellor has announced the next phase in the Government’s plan to protect jobs and support businesses, including a new job support scheme and greater flexibility to help pay back loans.
I thank the Minister for his reply and, of course, I welcome the additional support the Chancellor announced last week and the business rates holiday, which has been a lifeline for so many businesses. However, that holiday is due to come to an end in April and without it, I fear more retailers will go under, resulting in yet more store closures and job losses. We have already lost 14,000 stores this year and 125,000 retail staff have lost their jobs. Will the Government extend the business rates holiday for a further year and think again about their recent decision to end the VAT retail export scheme, which CEBR estimates will result in at least another 27,000 people losing their jobs in the retail sector?
I know that my noble friend has great expertise in this sector. As set out in the call for evidence for the fundamental review of business rates, of which he will be aware, the Government anticipate setting out our preliminary conclusions from the review in the most pressing areas, including reliefs, in the autumn.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that Covid has exacerbated a problem that existed some time before the pandemic, that high street retailers face higher costs and taxes than internet suppliers and that this will continue long after the Government’s short-term measures cease? Does the Minister agree that we need a permanent solution unless we want to see our high streets permanently damaged?
I did not quite catch all of that question, but I understand what the noble Lord was saying about the difficulty the retail sector is experiencing. Of course, the pandemic has exacerbated what has been a long-term problem, so I agree with the noble Lord to that extent.
My Lords, given the remarkable achievements of the high street retail sector in adapting to very difficult circumstances this year, can my noble friend say what steps the Government and the retail sector are taking to ensure that shops are safe for customers to visit in the run-up to Christmas?
The Government have worked closely with retailers throughout the pandemic and we continue to do so. Retailers were instrumental in the development of the Covid-secure guidance and we have invested a great deal to ensure that their premises are Covid secure. I welcome the British Retail Consortium’s campaign to encourage consumers to “Shop early, start wrapping, enjoy Christmas”.
My Lords, I remind the House of my registered interests. Footfall in high streets is down by well over a third compared to a year ago and despite business rates retail reliefs, the collection of business rates overall this financial year is still forecast to be down by more than £1.5 billion. Do the Government have a plan to meet this deficit without penalising the high street?
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the serious demise of the high street was evident long before Covid hit, through a combination of the success of out-of-town shopping centres and the trend for shopping online? We really should have been thinking about things of this nature many years ago. Does he also agree that it is vital that we rethink the role the high street must play post-Covid, especially in rural towns, where it has always been a major part of the social structure of those communities?
I agree with my noble friend that the retail sector has been undergoing a period of transition that well predates the pandemic. High streets play a crucial part in our rural communities, and through the £3.6 billion Towns Fund and the High Street Task Force we are providing support to local businesses and high streets.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is difficult to separate the original Question from questions about the longer term at a time, for example, when the current vulnerability coincides with changes to planning regulations? How much importance will be attached to the recent LSE report, Saving the high street: the community takeover, and does its message that close local authority involvement with community-driven projects is central to the future of our town centres have the Government’s support?
The noble Lord is quite right. We welcome the report prepared for Power to Change, which provides some valuable insights that will inform future policy interventions to support the recovery of the high street and town centres. This is a difficult, ongoing problem and we will want to work closely with both local authorities and retailers to solve it.
My Lords, will the Minister ask colleagues in the Welsh Assembly if the distinction between buying essential and inessential retail goods is a scientific one or an arbitrary political one? For retail in general, beyond financial support, a dangerous dose of puritan moralism will not help shops if it means that a care worker who has worked long shifts and might want to treat themselves to a dress is now treated as a criminal. The Minister said to shop early for Christmas—not in Wales, where I am from, because you are not allowed to shop at all, apparently.
My Lords, with visits to the high street falling and the prospect of Christmas and new year being digital at best, why are the Government asking local authorities to pay back support originally designated for the high street fightback fund? Should not the focus be on reopening the fund to help businesses struggling under the new restrictions?
As the noble Lord will be aware, the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors have been helped considerably. We allocated £12.3 billion to local authorities in England to pay grants to businesses under the small business grants fund. This support will continue and we need to do all we can to help our high streets.
My Lords, will the Minister have a look at the fate of charity shops on the high street, which fill up a great deal of it? They provide a large part of the income of many charities and are having their services called on very heavily at the moment. Can we do something to help them particularly? They have lost a lot of money and we need their services.
The noble Lord makes a powerful point. We are providing an unprecedented package of support worth £750 million to allow charities and social enterprises to continue their vital work but, of course, we accept that we are not able to replace every pound that they have lost.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on the business rates holiday and look forward to the forthcoming reform proposals. Following up the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, are there discussions between his department, the DHSC and the Government in Wales regarding the sale of non-essential items and the risk to high street jobs that it poses when those who might otherwise have purchased such items on the high street are then driven to buy them online?
My noble friend makes a powerful point. As I said earlier, I thought the Welsh Government were placed in a really difficult situation yesterday. It shows the difficulty of trying to define what is an essential item and what is non-essential. As I said, I almost felt sorry for them.
My Lords, can the Government consider placing out-of-town retailers on a comparable basis to high-street retailers with regard to business rates? There has long been a perceived position of overtaxing high streets and undertaxing out-of-town businesses.
My noble friend makes an important point. Business rates are based on the rateable value of non-residential properties, and rateable value is a measure of the property’s annual open-market rental value, as assessed by the Valuation Office Agency. Clearly, with the move towards out-of-town shopping centres and online retailers, this is an area ripe for urgent review, and we are doing that.
Domestic Abuse: Protection of Victims
My Lords, the Government provide funding to domestic abuse organisations, helplines and specialist services at national and local levels, and have introduced measures to tackle abuses such as forced marriage and FGM. We are committed to further strengthening victim protections through the Domestic Abuse Bill. We have also allocated £27 million of Covid-related funding to domestic abuse services and launched the #YouAreNotAlone campaign to signpost people to support.
During the present Covid crisis, domestic abuse is, sadly, increasing in the UK. Can my noble friend confirm that, in their approach to those who may suffer domestic abuse, the Government will ensure that recognition and support are afforded to men as well as women and children as well as adults, and that they understand that abuse may be as much economic or psychological as physical in nature?
I agree with all my noble friend’s points. Children are included in the definition due to the effects domestic abuse has on them, potentially for the rest of their lives. He is right about the economic aspect; coercive control is a very efficient way in which abusers control their victims.
My Lords, I add my voice to the concerns raised by many others in this House about how migrant women will be affected by the Domestic Abuse Bill. I thank the Government for their £1.5 million commitment to support research into the particular needs of this vulnerable group, but how many women is the scheme expected to support and what specific questions will the pilot be seeking to answer?
I thank the right reverend Prelate for that point. The first thing to be clear about is the principle that all victims of domestic abuse must be treated as victims first and foremost, whether they are migrant victims or not. I do not have the numbers before me, but the pilot will make it clear how many people we are talking about and where some of the gaps in provision might be.
My Lords, last summer, the Home Office began a review of the effectiveness of Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015, headed:
“Controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship.”
Can the Minister tell me when it will be published?
I thank my noble friend for that question. Coercive control is something that until relatively recently had not been identified as domestic abuse, but it is. Just because something does not involve hitting or physically hurting somebody else does not mean it is not as bad as other types of domestic abuse. I am pleased to be able to tell my noble friend that it remains our intention to publish this to inform the Lords stages of the Domestic Abuse Bill.
My Lords, the main way in which child abuse is discovered is either through teachers or social workers, yet throughout most of this year, children have not been in school, and due to social distancing, a lot of social workers have not been able to visit homes. There are also many kids who are still not back at school for all sorts of reasons, and according to various charities I have spoken to, there is a kind of hidden time bomb out there. I know this is very difficult, but I wanted to know whether the Government are aware of this, what they are doing and whether extra resources are being put in to take care of this unbelievably vulnerable small group, which is truly isolated and alone.
The noble Baroness is absolutely right; these children are truly isolated and alone. That has been especially true during lockdown, when we provided funding for the NSPCC. We were aware before lockdown of these children being in a vulnerable position and saw it as one of our priorities, together with domestic violence. One of the reasons, besides lots of others, to get children back to school was for their well-being to be looked after.
My Lords, the pandemic has exposed the shocking extent of domestic abuse in our society, with many more women being subjected to domestic abuse, along with children, and many more driven into sexual exploitation for survival. We have a new Bill coming to the House, which we welcome, but what we have learned must be incorporated into that Bill. Will the Minister meet with myself and others before it is introduced here so we can make sure that amendments brought forward will strengthen the Bill, get government support and enable us to find ways of protecting the most vulnerable women and give them some hope?
[Inaudible] started that engagement as the noble Baroness will probably be aware. I am pleased to say I will be happy to meet her. The Domestic Abuse Bill is just the start of the process of dealing with victims of domestic abuse. Members of your Lordships’ House will want to discuss many other things, and I would like for us, in order to get the Bill through, to be very focused on what we seek from it.
My Lords, I would like to press the Minister a bit further on the issue of children witnessing domestic abuse in the home. Women’s Aid has some stark figures: 53% said their children had seen more abuse, during lockdown, in the home, and a third said the abuser had shown an increase in abusive behaviour towards the children. She mentioned some statistics and information about the NSPCC. The impact on the mental health on children is paramount, yet child and adolescent mental health services still have waiting lists of three to six months, even for an assessment. What additional resources will go into supporting families? Children need mental health services as well as the other support services she mentioned.
I do not think anyone in the House would disagree with the noble Baroness that some children have probably experienced terrible things during lockdown, with not only their parents being victims of domestic violence but themselves too. Even if a child sees domestic violence going on, they are a victim, and that is why we have included it in the definition of a victim of domestic abuse. One of the key functions of the domestic abuse commissioner will be to encourage good practice in the identification of children affected by such abuse and the provision of protection and support to people, including children, affected by domestic abuse.
My Lords, the Domestic Abuse Bill, as currently drafted, places an important duty on local authorities in England to deliver support for victims who are in accommodation-based services such as a refuge. But 70% of victims of domestic abuse, specifically children, suffer at home, not in a refuge. How can we avoid creating a two-tier system whereby 70% of the victims of domestic abuse, including those children, will not be able to access this support because, sadly, they suffer at home?
The idea is that they will be able to access the support—it would be a terrible thing if, say, the mother of the child was getting the support and the children simply were not. Part and parcel of the support that people will receive includes of course the children of people who are being abused.
My Lords, how will the Government ensure that Refuge and other providers which choose to prioritise the well-being of women by applying single-sex exemptions are not penalised through contracts awarded by local authorities, CCGs and PCNs, many of which have misinterpreted the Equality Act by making gender-neutral or trans-inclusive provision for members of the opposite sex a condition of contracts? Will the Minister agree to a meeting with me and others to discuss the current guidance on this issue?
What is important is that local providers of accommodation-based services are the people who are best placed to do the risk assessment when people are going into their accommodation. It has become a very volatile conversation and I would be very pleased, at a slow time, to have a conversation with the noble Lord on this issue.
Covid-19: Test Results
My Lords, in the last two months we have responded to the rising demand for tests, the rising infection rates, the need to protect the front line in health and social care, the need for clinical trials for vaccine-to-medicines, outbreak control and surveillance by doubling the number of tests to 360,000. This has impacted turnaround times, which is regrettable, but we are focused on increasing capacity to raise efficiency, investing in the logistical backbone and encouraging users to the weekends, which will bring turnaround times down to the objective of next-day results.
My Lords, this morning I spoke to Allan Wilson, the president of the Institute of Biomedical Science, which represents 20,000 professional lab staff. He wrote to the department in early April to offer his free advice on how to improve the system and get a speedy testing system. Seven months later, the department responded with a letter advising him to go to the government portal for public contracts. Will the Minister now agree to meet the person who probably has the most experience of labs up and down the country? Why are the Government shunning Mr Wilson of the Institute of Biomedical Science in favour of paying £700,000 a day to management consultants?
My Lords, I am distressed to hear the anecdote that the noble Lord has just shared with us. We embrace the support and help of anyone who steps forward, particularly someone such as Mr Wilson, who clearly has an enormous amount of expertise. I would be delighted if he would write to me personally and I would be very prepared to meet him. I would also like give massive thanks to all those from all the relevant logistical, pathology, military and medical sciences who have formed an organisation practically the size of Tesco, which is what the national diagnostic system now looks like. It is only with the support of British industry, universities and business that we have been able to build this up and we are enormously grateful for that support.
I am not sure that I can answer the false premise. Actually, test and trace has enormous achievements—the isolation of 1 million people who would potentially have spread the disease is the most glaringly obvious—but we are here to talk about turnaround times and there, I completely accept that the current performance is not where it should be. I have sought to explain the reasons for that, and the enormous increase in capacity in the last 60 days. I have also sought to explain the measures we are putting in place to mitigate that. I am confident that those measures will be successful, and I am happy to report back to the House on them
My Lords, South West Water and Plymouth City Council have been co-operating in the testing of wastewater across the city to determine the strength and location of Covid outbreaks. What guidance has Public Health England given to local authorities on this, and what analysis has it done on this sort of testing?
The noble Baroness is right to cite the use of wastewater analysis. The innovations and partnerships team at test and trace has a programme to look at precisely that method. We are particularly interested in using targeted wastewater analysis at schools and in social care in order to promptly identify the presence of the disease. We are looking in particular at technologies that have already been trialled in Italy. The trials are extremely promising, but I would be happy to make that connection between South West Water and the relevant team so that their knowledge is usefully used.
My Lords, what study has been undertaken into the efficiency and accuracy of these tests; by which I mean how many false positives and false negatives there are? Furthermore, what is the long-term strategy regarding this? If, every time restrictions are relaxed, tests show that infections rise, are we then just to continue imposing lockdowns ad infinitum?
My Lords, we have a very intense and rigorous validation programme around the various tests. They look at sensitivity and false positives. We do not believe that the current machines we use have a high risk in that department, but we always keep a close look at it. I am extremely grateful to those businesses that have developed new and innovative tests that we are rolling out all the time.
My Lords, I take my hat off to the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, which runs an extremely exciting trial. In fact, the Secretary of State is visiting this very afternoon in order to get an update on that trial. Dogs can be used as a way of screening crowds in such places as airports and high-density venues. The validation of that method has not been proven yet, but I am personally extremely hopeful and remain grateful to those involved in the pilot.
We move from dogs to the technical teething problems with the app. It seems that the NHS Test and Trace app sends out exposure warnings to people stating that they have to isolate and then a few hours later sends another alert saying that there is no issue and they do not have to isolate. That probably means it is working quite well, but it does not tell anybody where they might have been exposed, or, as I have experienced, it flashes at you that you have been near someone who has tested positive and then there is complete silence. When will we be able to trust the technology to help us as well as alarm us? Secondly, when will the care homes testing speed up? Care homes’ turnaround time for tests still seems to be stuck in three to five days on average.
My Lords, on the app, the noble Baroness alludes to two separate issues. The first is the exposure notices, which are not sent by the NHS app but by the Apple telephone device. We have put in the new version of the NHS app a way of mitigating those exposure notices. She is entirely right that the app has no idea of your geography; that is the genius of the app and its commitment to privacy. It means that we cannot tell you where you were exposed, but also that your location and privacy are protected. On social care, we are investing in a large number of trials to try to speed up mass social care testing, including bulk testing and the use of wastewater, which we discussed earlier.
My Lords, pool testing offers a huge opportunity to cover a large amount of ground very quickly, and there are some workplace testing champions for it, including Amazon. However, it has some restrictions, in particular not knowing the identity of the person who might have tested positive. That is why we are running a large number of pilots at the moment and investing heavily in trying to figure out this exciting but challenging technology. We will deploy it the moment we can find a model that works.
My Lords, there have been a lot of allegations of corruption in the tendering processes for various aspects during the pandemic. I am curious whether the Minister feels that that could have some impact on the efficiency of what is happening now. When will the Government work with the right people?
My Lords, I ask the Minister to convey our thanks to those rank and file workers who are trying to make this system work. I also say that, until he modifies the scheme so that we have local tracing, there will be many more sessions of Question Time that will be embarrassing for him.
I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord—I am never embarrassed—for giving me the opportunity to say a massive thanks to those tens of thousands involved. They take a huge amount of heat from the criticism targeted at test and trace, but many of them are working through the night to hit our targets, because people often take their tests during the morning or the afternoon. A lot of them work at the weekend and during holidays, when people often want their test results. It is arduous, tough, technical work and we are enormously grateful to those concerned. On local testing, we have in place 100 local test partnerships between local authorities and the national test and trace system which are proving extremely valuable, particularly in targeting hard-to-reach communities. We are putting an enormous amount of resources into them and they are proving extremely successful.
Free School Meals
Private Notice Question
To ask her Majesty’s Government, following the announcements of the Welsh and Scottish Governments, as well as local councils, whether they will end the free school meals postcode lottery and provide free school meals for eligible children in England during the school holidays until Easter 2021.
My Lords, the Government are determined to ensure that children are supported throughout this pandemic. We recognise that these are unprecedented and difficult times for some families and that is why the Government have significantly strengthened the welfare safety net. We have put in place additional measures worth around £9 billion this financial year. Further to that, we have provided £63 million in welfare assistance funding to local authorities to support families with food and other essentials.
My Lords, as a humble Cross-Bench Peer, I passionately believe that the issue of 4.1 million children living in poverty—the vast majority in working families and the subject of free school meals—should not be embroiled in this presently poisonous political space. While we entrench our political positions and are afraid to say on either side that we might have got this wrong, our kids go hungry, families descend into despair, and, as my good friend Dame Louise Casey has stated, destitution beckons. Does the Minister agree with me that as a matter of urgency in this Covid crisis, we must show leadership and create a unified party group to form a strategy—for today, tomorrow and, indeed, the long term—which includes young, dynamic men such as Marcus Rashford and organisations such as FareShare, the Trussell Trust and others?
My Lords, I am sure that all noble Lords, whether politically aligned or not, will agree that we want to help those children who are in need and that working together is the way to find a solution. The suggestions and recommendations put forward by the new child poverty task force convened by Marcus Rashford, whose activities we commend, will be considered as part of the forthcoming spending review.
My Lords, I was in receipt of free meals throughout my entire school career. My mother was a single woman and her only income was the contributions of the national assistance. We lived in one room. I remember very clearly—I can still taste and smell it—the mounting panic ahead of school holidays, because the income we had could not stretch to feeding two boys and a mother in that day. Marcus Rashford and I have this, and probably only this, in common: we remember, not in our heads but in our whole bodies. An old Etonian, of course, cannot be expected to have had the same experience. Some local councils will draw money in the way that the Government are suggesting, from allocations they have received. Other local authorities will not. Some communities will rise to the challenge. Other communities will not. Some children will get through. Most will not. Will the Minister give us some reassurance—not hide behind global figures—and understand that postcode lottery is not a formula that is destined to help the well-being of our children?
Many noble Lords of all parties and none can recall circumstances in which their own needs, whether that be housing or food, were not met through the circumstances of their family. There are indeed—it is not a postcode lottery—1.4 million children in England who are entitled to free school meals, saving their families over £400 a year. Additionally, particularly through the soft drinks levy, the Government have been funding breakfast clubs in nearly 2,500 schools to provide children with healthy food.
My Lords, the Prime Minister said yesterday that no child should go hungry. We have heard from the Minister that the Government have made available £63 million to be given to vulnerable families’ local authorities. What she did not say was that the guidance said that the money should have been spent within 12 weeks. So that money could not be used for free meals, and it was certainly not ring-fenced for providing meals during holidays. I have a straightforward question for the Minister: can the Government promise that every vulnerable child will get a meal during the holidays?
My Lords, on the local authority welfare assistance fund, the noble Lord is correct that the 12-week period ends at the end of October/beginning of November. It does cover the relevant period. Due to the unprecedented circumstances in which schools have closed, we have provided support to pay for free school meals while they were closed. However, as most schools were back—approximately 89% of children were back in school—the traditional method of delivering free school meals before half-term was back in action.
My Lords, given that schools are usually standing empty during the school holidays, in the longer term would it not be more sensible to open them up so that they can serve nutritious meals to the children who really need them and, just as important, provide educational opportunities, many of which have been missed during this pandemic?
My Lords, yes, indeed. Many schools in 17 local authorities are open during the holidays, and the Government have provided £9 million to fund holiday clubs that include food as well. At the moment, however, given how hard all staff in our schools have worked, I do not think that anyone is suggesting that we want the school kitchens open in that traditional manner during the school holidays.
I recognise that the Government have given significant sums to strengthen the welfare of children but would the Minister not agree that the most focused and efficient way of supporting the most vulnerable members of our society—the children—is by paying for school meals during the holidays, as has been recognised by the Scottish and Welsh Governments? That would be the most focused and efficient way of doing it.
My Lords, the method used by the Scottish and Welsh Governments is, in fact, a similar methodology to the local authority welfare assistance fund, as it is through local councils and does not expect schools to deliver it. This is a time, during the pandemic, when all of us—government, communities, faith communities, families and charities—need to come together to support everyone.
My Lords, although I agree with the Government that free school meals are not the long-term solution for holiday hunger, the reality is that it is now half-term and children are going hungry. Does the Minister agree that although the current crisis demands short-term solutions, there is also a much bigger question at stake? Will she tell us what sustained support the Government will be offering to address the concerns up to Easter 2021, and their plans to tackle the underlying and increasing issues of child poverty in the longer term?
My Lords, the main way in which the Government fund, outside free school meals and breakfast clubs, is through the universal credit system. It may seem like a big figure—£9 billion—but that has meant an increase in universal credit or working tax credit of over £1,000, which is significant in addition to the increase in local housing allowance that has been given. When we look globally through the Anglican Communion we see that we are fortunate to live in a country that, while it is not perfect, does provide a welfare safety net for its citizens.
My Lords, in June, the Minister rebuffed my call for an extension of free school meal vouchers to cover the summer holidays, saying:
“There is support out there for those who need provision.”—[Official Report, 10/6/20; col. 1745.]
Days later, the Government U-turned, and the Minister explained that by saying:
“We have listened, we recognise the pressures that families will be under … due to the Covid crisis, and we have responded to that.”—[Official Report, 17/6/20; col. 2180.]
But lessons were not learned and today, despite the funding mentioned earlier by the Minister, children across the country are going hungry. During a pandemic, how can the most vulnerable children in our society not be a priority for support? Will the Minister now urge her Government to show compassion and agree to fund free school meals for all school holidays until spring 2021?
I do apologise if the noble Lord felt rebuffed. But, as he will be aware, in addition to the support that has been given to disadvantaged children, there are now over 500,000 devices. So the needs of disadvantaged children are a priority for the Government, and £350 million of the catch-up fund is directed to disadvantaged children. In addition to that, although again it sounds like a big figure, we will never know how many children have avoided needing free school meals thanks to the £53 billion of taxpayers’ money that has been used to support businesses during this period, which paid for the furlough scheme and other schemes.
My Lords, I too am one of the few Members of the House of Lords who depended on free school meals, and it never made sense to me that you got this sort of support in term time but nothing in the school holidays. Can the Minister tell the House when Ministers will stop saying publicly that they agree with Marcus Rashford while voting down his proposals? Is it not time to do the right thing?
My Lords, the Government have an overall principle that the best way for families is to be in work, but, when they are not in work, the universal credit system provides funding for those families. That has been the traditional means, so we have not expected all schools to be open during the holidays to provide those meals. It is a free school meal, and the vouchers were given because of course schools were closed during term time. Supplementary programmes such as holiday and breakfast clubs have been in addition to that.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on holding to the principle that people should be responsible for looking after their own children. None the less, does she not recognise that in this pandemic we need special measures, that free school meals were a special measure that was proven to work and that we made work when schools were not operating, and that it is really difficult to create new forms of support in the middle of a pandemic? Would it not be most sensible to go back to providing free school meals as the most practical short-term alternative?
My Lords, we are indeed living through a time when special measures have been needed. However, for the reasons I outlined, it would not be right to expect schools at the moment to be open outside term time to provide meals. Although we offered a voucher system, it was important that schools could have their own local voucher system that could be redeemed in local shops. The system we had to stand up in special measures was only for national supermarkets, whereas the costs of local schemes could be reclaimed and local shops could be included.
My Lords, it appears that there is a policy vacuum in England regarding the provision of nutritious food for children. Can the Minister explain whether Her Majesty’s Government accept that there is a clear correlation between children’s cognitive development and proper nutrition, and, if so, how can they stand by and let children in Scotland and Wales receive free food school vouchers equivalent to school meals and deprive our children in England? How does this help level up society in the UK, which was surely a key manifesto commitment? No child, whether in a city, town or rural community, should be hungry during the school holidays.
My Lords, in relation to children in England, I have outlined the local government welfare assistance scheme. When schools came back properly, the box of fruit and vegetables scheme was also back running. The Government have extended free school meals; about 17% of children in England qualify for them. During the pandemic we extended eligibility to the children of parents who had no recourse to public funds, and in 2014 we introduced universal infant free school meals and free school meals for those in FE. The Government have not stood by but have supported, through other taxpayers’ taxes, vulnerable children during the pandemic.
My Lords, while I do not for a minute doubt the Minister’s personal understanding of this difficulty, I think she is wrong to say that it is not a postcode lottery. Today is half-term, and whether children will get a free school meal will depend on where they live. There are only two ways of making sure that that does not happen at Christmas: either to make it a statutory duty, which is the case with free school meals, or to offer ring-fenced funding. Unless the Government do one or the other of those things, this will continue to be a postcode lottery. Can the Minister assure us that the solution that the Government come forward with for the Christmas holidays will adopt one of those two solutions?
My Lords, the noble Baroness, who I thank for her comments, raises a wider issue. When power is devolved, whether to councils, combined authorities or different nations, we have to live with the fact that we will see different responses in different parts of the country. In relation to Scotland, it did not pay for free school meals during the recent October half-term. However, I will take away the noble Baroness’s comments.
Covid-19: Economy Update
The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Thursday 22 October.
“Let me speak first to the people of Liverpool, Lancashire, South Yorkshire and Greater Manchester, and other areas moving into or already living under heightened health restrictions. I understand your frustration. People need to know that this is not forever; these are temporary restrictions to help control the spread of the virus. There are difficult days and weeks ahead, but we will get through this together. People are not on their own. We have an economic plan that will protect the jobs and livelihoods of the British people, wherever they live and whatever their situation. Just as we have throughout this crisis, we will listen and respond to people’s concerns as the situation demands.
I make no apology for responding to changing circumstances, so today we go further. The Prime Minister was right to outline a balanced approach to tackling coronavirus, taking the difficult decisions to save lives and keep the R rate down while doing everything in our power to protect the jobs and livelihoods of the British people. The evidence is clear: a regional, tiered approach is the right way to control the spread of the virus. My right honourable friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury yesterday set out for the House our economic support for businesses that are legally required to close. We are providing billions of pounds of support for local authorities and a grant scheme for affected businesses, worth up to £0.5 billion every month. Of course, we also expanded the job support scheme, with the Government covering the cost of paying two-thirds of people’s normal wages if their employer had been legally required to close. For areas in local alert level 3, we have made available over £1 billion of generous up-front grants, so that local authorities can support businesses, protect jobs and aid economic recovery in a fair and transparent way. That is our plan to support closed businesses.
But it is clear that even businesses that can stay open are facing profound economic uncertainty. This morning I met business and union representatives, including those from the hospitality industry, to discuss the new restrictions. Their message was clear. The impact of the health restrictions on their businesses is worse than they hoped. They recognise the importance of the tiered restrictions in controlling the spread of the virus, but a significant fall in consumer demand is causing profound economic harm to their industry. It is clear that they and other open-but-struggling businesses require further support, so I am taking three further steps today.
First, I am introducing a new grant scheme for businesses impacted by tier 2 restrictions, even if they are not legally closed. We will fund local authorities to provide businesses in their area with direct cash grants. It will be up to local authorities to decide how best to distribute the grants, giving them the necessary flexibility to respond to local economic circumstances, but I am providing enough funding to give every business premises in the hospitality, leisure and accommodation sectors a direct grant worth up to £2,100 for every month for which tier 2 restrictions apply. That is equivalent to 70% of the value of the grants available for closed businesses in tier 3. Crucially, I am pleased to confirm that these grants will be retrospective; businesses in any area that has been under enhanced restrictions can backdate their grants to August.
I have been listening to and engaging with colleagues around the House, including—but not only—my honourable friends the Members for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson), for Hyndburn (Sara Britcliffe), for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates), for South Ribble (Katherine Fletcher), for Burnley (Antony Higginbotham), for Keighley (Robbie Moore), for Cheadle (Mary Robinson), for Leigh (James Grundy) and for Southport (Damien Moore), and I am pleased to confirm that the backdating of the new grants means that we are being more generous to the businesses and places that have been under higher restrictions for longer. Let no one say that this Government are not committed to supporting the people and businesses in every region and nation of the United Kingdom.
Secondly, to protect jobs we are making the job support scheme more generous for employers. If businesses are legally required to close, as we have already outlined, the Government will cover the full cost of employers paying two-thirds of people’s salaries where they cannot work for a week or more. For businesses that can open, it is now clear that the impact of restrictions on them is more significant than they had hoped, particularly for those in the hospitality sector. I am therefore making two changes to the short-time work scheme to make it easier for those businesses to keep staff on, rather than make them redundant. First, under the original scheme, employees had to work for 33% of their normal hours, whereas now we will ask them to work only 20% of those hours; and, secondly, the employer contribution for the hours not worked will not be 33% as originally planned, or even 20% as it is in the October furlough scheme, but will reduce to 5%.
The scheme will apply to eligible businesses in all alert levels, so that businesses that are not closed but which face higher restrictions, in places such as Liverpool, Lancashire, South Yorkshire and Greater Manchester, as well as the devolved nations, will be able to access greater support. These changes mean more employers can access the scheme and more jobs will be protected. We have made this one of the most generous versions of a short-time work scheme anywhere in the world. It is better for businesses, better for jobs and better for the economy.
Thirdly, as we increase the contribution we are making towards employees’ wages, I am increasing our contribution to the incomes of the self-employed as well. Today we are doubling the next round of self-employed income support from 20% to 40% of people’s incomes, increasing the maximum grant to £3,750. So far through this crisis, we have provided more than £13 billion of support to self-employed workers. Sole traders, small businesses and self-employed people are the dynamic entrepreneurial heart of our economy, and this Government are on their side.
In conclusion, a wage subsidy for closed businesses, a wage subsidy for open businesses, cash grants of over £2,000 a month for tier 2 businesses and up to £3,000 a month for closed businesses, support for local authorities, support for the self-employed, support for people’s jobs and incomes, all on top of over £200 billion of support since March. This is our plan—a plan for jobs, for businesses, for the regions, for the economy, for the country. A plan to support the British people. I commend this Statement to the House.”
My Lords, as ever, I am grateful to the Minister for presenting this Statement. When we last discussed the economic update from the Chancellor on 28 September, he was rather unhappy with my characterisation of it as
“another example of Ministers reacting to events, rather than attempting to shape them—of allowing problems to grow, rather than acting quickly and decisively to prevent them in the first place.”—[Official Report, 28/9/20; col. 18.]
The fact that we find ourselves discussing major revisions to the package of measures outlined just a month ago suggests, sadly, a lack of strategic thought in both No. 10 and No. 11 Downing Street. While some of the changes outlined by the noble Lord are to be welcomed, there is too little detail on how others will operate in practice. We know with financial Statements that the devil is in the detail, but on too many fronts we are still waiting for that detail to be finalised.
I have no doubt that the noble Lord will tell us not to worry and that everything is under control. However, in an ideal world, the Treasury would not be redesigning the Job Support Scheme a matter of days before it went live. That it is having to revisit its plans will have done nothing to address the anxiety of businesses and workers, which I referred to during our previous discussion. The revisions to the JSS and the announcement of an increase to the third grant for the self-employed are small steps in the right direction. Additional support for businesses operating in tier 2 and tier 3 areas is also welcome, although the announcement of new funding for such businesses makes it puzzling that some of that support was withheld when requested by the Mayor of Greater Manchester earlier last week.
We hope that changes to the formula for the JSS will encourage businesses to keep on more workers. However, as a range of commentators have noted, the late arrival of the announcement means that many thousands of jobs that may otherwise have been safeguarded have already been lost. As I said last time, each job loss is a personal tragedy. More needs to be done to protect people’s jobs and that requires a concerted government effort. Despite the changes announced last week, many workers still face noticeable reductions to their pay.
Despite taking home less, people will still have bills to pay, including mortgages and rent. The Government previously chose not to extend the statutory protections from eviction in place during the first wave of the pandemic. For homeowners, the ban on repossessions comes to an end on Saturday. Will the Minister confirm whether either policy is being revisited in light of the second wave’s arrival and the very real likelihood of unemployment continuing to rise?
The noble Lord will no doubt have seen the headline in the Resolution Foundation’s latest research on the Government’s Self-employment Income Support Scheme. The organisation echoes what we have said for some time: the programme has been poorly targeted and often missed those who are most in need. Its analysis suggests that a substantial number of beneficiaries have lost either no or minimal income as a result of the pandemic, whereas half a million people have received nothing, despite being left without work. The Treasury has had time to look again at the furlough, so why has it not properly revisited the self-employment equivalent? Will the Minister commit to doing that and, if so, can he provide a timescale? Will he also outline the rationale for the third grant being equivalent to just 40% of pre-crisis profits, rather than the higher levels of previous rounds? Why is the work of the self-employed suddenly less valuable than it was previously?
We appreciate the unprecedented nature of this public health crisis and the scale of interventions required. However, I hope that the Minister recognises that this is an equally challenging time for businesses and working people across the UK. They need meaningful support and early sight of the details so that they can make the right decisions for the future. The Government’s habit of last-minute announcements, often without accompanying detail, is severely undermining public confidence. This has been the case for not only economic measures but public health measures. I hope that the Minister can provide assurances that future announcements will come earlier and with more clarity. People’s jobs and our wider economic recovery depend on it.
My Lords, this feels like déjà vu. Once again, the Government are forced to revise and increase their support for businesses. We need them to give up their bravado and recognise the depth of the economic crisis coming both from Covid and from the harmful economic realities of Brexit, undercutting investment and jobs, even with a deal. Frankly, we desperately need a new OBR forecast, even if without a Budget. While I understand the Government choosing just a one-year spending review, we should be getting open kimono on the long-term issues and choices for discussion in this House and elsewhere. This is not the time for secret spells cooked up in No.10. The situation that we face is far more dire and needs the resources of everybody’s minds and energy.
I want to make two pleas to the Government. First, feed the kids. I know that we have just taken a PNQ on that subject but the money provided to local government under the local authority welfare assistance fund and others was never intended to cope with the present scale of demand, when much of the country is necessarily closed down again, many people are facing redundancy at the end of the month in just a few days’ time, homelessness is rising, and mental health and other demands on local services are increasing exponentially. Many Liberal Democrat, Labour and Conservative councils have stepped in to provide food vouchers to children on free school meals, but that is at the price of financing other needs. Families who qualify for free school meals have by now exhausted any savings, borrowed anything that a respectable lender will let them have and tapped out family and friends. Please will the Government put in place a voucher system to at least carry us over to next Easter?
Secondly, will the Government finally step in to help the 3 million excluded people? They consist primarily of self-employed contractors with personal service companies but also include a range of other people in the self-employed arena. There has, by now, been plenty of time to set up appropriate schemes. The Government argued from the beginning that the issue was complicated, but there has been time to sort it out. As the Resolution Foundation pointed out, and as the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, described, the SEISS has been badly targeted. The self-employed have suffered an even bigger market shock than employees, and with so many people facing redundancy and needing to look to self-employment for any future income, it is absolutely crucial that proper support is put in place for the self-employed, under whatever arrangements they have established.
I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness for their comments. I shall try to deal quickly with the issues that they raised.
I completely accept that we are dealing with a fast-moving and difficult situation. The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, feels that we did not move quickly enough, and he made similar comments the last time we discussed this subject. However, we have moved quickly. We have acknowledged that, given the rolling lockdowns occurring across the country, we need to do more, which is why we are supporting more extensively businesses that have been forced to close as part of the lockdown. We are paying rate relief, which will include a portion of the rent of those businesses that are forced to close. Those that remain open but are affected by a fall-off in trade are receiving a great deal of extra support as well.
It might be worth summarising the extent of extra support announced since I was last here. The government contribution to payment of salaries has increased from 22% to 49%. The employer contribution has fallen from 22% to 4%, and the minimum-hours requirement has fallen from 33% to 20%. The noble Baroness asked about support for the self-employed. It has been a complicated group to support but we have essentially doubled the level of support with the recent announcements, taking the figure up from 20% to 40%. We will continue to monitor the situation.
The noble Lord asked about evictions. There are already provisions with lenders to ensure that they are handling those processes in a sensitive and reasonable manner, but, again, we will of course keep the situation under review.
It is extremely difficult to know how much longer this horror will continue. However, on the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, about a more strategic response to the crisis, it is worth reminding her and the House that we have put into the system an unprecedented level of support over the past nine months—some £158 billion of direct fiscal support. That includes £69 billion for employment support, and £51 billion for public service spending, funding for charities and support for vulnerable people.
My Lords, does my noble friend not think that perhaps the time has come for us to have a UK-wide plan for education, employment, housing and welfare that will enable us to live with this virus? Should the Government not consider inviting the opposition parties to be part of this plan and involving local authorities in its creation and execution?
My noble friend raises an important point. This country now has a more devolved structure. We have tried to keep the devolved and mayoral authorities involved in decisions at every point. We have given some £13 billion to the devolved authorities to react to the issues that we are facing. I accept that it might be easier if we could operate on an entirely national basis, but unfortunately that is not the present reality of our constitution. I assure my noble friend that we are doing everything possible to talk to the devolved authorities at all times.
My Lords, we welcome the latest support measures from the Chancellor, especially the new Job Support Scheme. It is miles better than the one he announced a few weeks ago. Can the Minister tell us when the rapid 15-minute, affordable antigen coronavirus test will be available to businesses, universities and schools across the country so that regular testing can take place to enable the economy to fire on all cylinders? When we will be able to open up airport testing to allow tourist and business travel?
The noble Lord asks an important question. I do not speak as a health expert, but a lot of these tests are simply not reliable enough. The worry is that we would create a false sense of security which could then cause further problems. I might be incorrect but, as I understand it, some of these tests cannot pick up the infection when it is still gestating in the gut of an asymptomatic person. I am aware that a number of universities and employers are taking their own decisions and using their own technologies. It is much easier for independent organisations to do this, knowing the risks, and they can respond accordingly.
My Lords, tier 3 restrictions are hugely disruptive to the economy and will lead to the collapse of yet more businesses. In these circumstances, as many Conservative MPs in these areas now say, it is imperative to provide clear information about the exit route from tier 3 so that businesses can at least try to plan for the future. Will the Minister tell the House what measures will be used and how will they be weighted when the decision to exit is made?
I agree with the noble Baroness that tier 3 has a devastating impact on businesses and on people’s lives, but it is how we are trying to control the spread of the virus. We see what is happening in Spain at the moment. That is the nightmare that we are seeking to avoid. As I understand it, the overriding way of monitoring whether an area can come of out of tier 3 is when the percentage of those being tested for the virus falls below a certain threshold. This information gives some indication to businesses that they may be coming out of this nightmare.
My Lords, in answer to an earlier question, the Minister reeled off a whole range of government measures. I do not think he mentioned the Bounce Back Loan Scheme. In September, the BEIS annual report stated that losses from non-repayment bounce-back loans would be in the range of 35% to 60%. I note that this would buy a lot of school meals. Meanwhile, we know that banks are hiring debt recovery specialists to reclaim those loans. With his Treasury hat on, can the Minister tell the House which route the Government favour? Do they favour greater use of debt recovery services to reduce the overall level of loan defaults or do they accept that there will be widespread default? In either case, what level of default is the Treasury modelling?
It is important to differentiate between default and fraud. As the noble Lord will know, there are no repayment requirements on bounce-back loans for a year. The idea that banks are now hiring debt recovery firms to go out collecting is probably inaccurate. They are increasing their resources to deal with fraud because this has been a problem. I am concerned about this both as fraud Minister and as a Treasury Minister. No repayments are due on BBLs for 12 months from drawdown and we have recently extended the repayment period to 10 years.
My Lords, on the “Today” programme this morning, my right honourable friend Nadhim Zahawi said that the Government had to strike a balance between combating the virus and damaging the economy. In the light of those remarks, have the Government ever carried out a cost-benefit analysis before taking these quite dramatic decisions on lockdown, both nationally and regionally?
I am not aware of an analysis of this kind. We have to be realistic. It is easy for people sitting in a dark room with spreadsheets to say how many deaths we are prepared to accept for the balance of the economy. Frankly, it is extremely difficult. So far, we have had more deaths than other European countries, which has brought us a great deal of criticism. It is extremely difficult to balance lives against livelihoods. I might have a completely different view from that of Members opposite. We have to try to strike what we consider to be a reasonable balance—protecting lives where we can, but also protecting livelihoods.
My Lords, it would be churlish and wrong not to salute the efforts made by the Chancellor to boost the arts, and indeed I do. I also understand that not every job or venue can be saved. In Sunday’s Observer, Simon Rattle articulated the real worry that freelance musicians and artists at the workface could be so depleted that the cultural life of this country and its significant contribution to the economy could be seriously curtailed—especially if, as the Chancellor has suggested, considerable numbers leave the profession and retrain. Have the Government assessed this potential damage, given that their own figures found that out of 187,000 creative freelancers only 64,000 were eligible for and accessed SEISS? Will the Government look at this and the remaining 65% who fell outside the package?
I am not aware of the specific figures. It is clearly very worrying that we could lose the creative capacity of our economy and our society. We are in the most unprecedented situation, certainly in my lifetime and probably going back to the end of the Second World War. Whenever this crisis ends, there will have to be a period of rebuilding and regeneration. I absolutely affirm the Government’s support for this very important part of our society.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of Cumbria County Council, and it is a Cumbria point I want to make. One of the welcome features of the Chancellor’s Statement was the introduction of a grant scheme for businesses impacted by tier 2 restrictions, even though they are not legally closed. Cumbria is in tier 1 but most of its businesses, such as hotels, boarding houses and restaurants, serve people who come from tier 3 areas in the north-west. There has been a dramatic fall in bookings, with lots of cancellations in the last week or so. These businesses are going to go bust unless they receive the help that tier 2 is getting. Can the Minister offer them some hope that, despite being in tier 1, they might receive some help?
My Lords, the Job Support Scheme Open is available to all small businesses experiencing difficulties in this crisis. They are eligible for the figures that I gave earlier to the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, as are large employers of more than 250 employees that can demonstrate a negative impact on their turnover from Covid.
My Lords, the Government have been pretty supportive of retail and other business tenants, with the rates holiday, VAT help, the furlough scheme and the moratorium against enforcement by landlords. I have little doubt that these will be extended for as long as coronavirus issues continue, but have the Government seriously considered how they will be unwound for tenants, in particular the moratorium on rents? As soon as it is lifted, some landlords will seek enormous backdated rents, all owed at once, which themselves would bankrupt businesses that have been unable to trade for a significant period. Either government support or some unwinding of the moratorium is needed to avoid these bankruptcies.
My Lords, a great deal of thinking is going on, but this matter might be worth some pragmatism. If landlords collectively behaved in the way suggested by the noble Lord, there would be a mass exit from commercial buildings when the point comes. Doing that would surely be shooting themselves in the foot.
My Lords, as other Peers have pointed out, there does not seem to be much strategic thinking embedded in the Statement. For example, the Government could have focused on companies committed to a zero-carbon future, or picked companies that are not handing out dividends and bonuses, or those that are registered in the UK to pay tax. Did the Government do any thinking of this kind?
To answer the noble Baroness, as I mentioned earlier, a huge range of initiatives has been announced over the last few months, particularly for some of the sectors referred to. On 30 June, the Prime Minister announced substantial infrastructure commitments, partly from new money and partly from acceleration of money. Many of those are strategically aimed at the sorts of businesses mentioned, including those involved in a carbon-free economy.
My Lords, I draw attention to another division in this country. Those who I define as the salariat are largely working from home and not suffering any reductions in pay. Indeed, they are saving money and a couple of hours a day from not travelling to work. They are making the rules, but seldom suffer any of the consequences. At the same time, we have a lot of very junior workers, some around this House, who are struggling to get by. Some are furloughed; some have no jobs at all. They feel rejected and unwanted by society. This is not a matter that the Government can wave a wand to solve, but we need to pay more attention to this division in society.
This House is almost empty of workers. If they can work at home for so many months without us even seeing them, is there not a good case to move some jobs from the House of Lords to areas of high unemployment and poverty in the north-east? If they can be done remotely from Dorking, Woking and towns in Berkshire, they can surely be done from Hartlepool and other delightful towns found in the north-east and north of the country, where these jobs are seriously needed.
The noble Lord makes an extremely important point. By coincidence, I am the Minister working on the programme to move civil servants out of London, which was recently announced. The Prime Minister will be making more comments on this shortly but, given that I have lived this for six months, I can reassure my noble friend that we have identified 14 hubs with spokes across Britain, including the devolved authorities. The most important part is to get the senior civil servants out of London, because they make decisions on the lives of people from whom they are, in my view, far too detached. At the moment, some 65% of all senior civil servants in the country are here in London, and the vast majority in this postcode. We are committed to ensuring that opportunities for those senior jobs are outside the capital, and that they make policies that affect citizens in those areas.
My Lords, the availability of an effective coronavirus testing regime is critical to reopening the economy. With the reported Good Law Project prospective legal action on the procurement of testing equipment in mind, can we have an assurance that the procurement programme has, extraordinarily, either National Audit Office prior approval or that government lawyers are satisfied that contracts do not breach the 2015 Public Contract Regulations? Can we have that assurance in writing, as it is very important for business confidence?
The noble Lord’s question is timely, because part of my responsibility is for the procurement reform rules which we are putting into place and will be able to use once we leave the EU on 1 January. Part of the problem we have had over this crisis is the extremely clunky method of procurement that is imposed on us by the OJEU rules. It will need primary legislation, but we have designed a programme that will deal with exactly the issues that the noble Lord raises. If he is interested, I am happy to send him a draft copy of the Green Paper, which will be available in the next week or two.
My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley of Knighton, I applaud what the Chancellor has been seeking to do in very difficult and trying circumstances. However, as the noble Lord said, if the country is to get back to normal, it, like the hospitality sector, will be very dependent on a thriving cultural sector. My noble friend did not really face up to this in answering the noble Lord, but it is a fact that, although we all applaud the creation of a safety net for the self-employed, a vast number of them—self-employed musicians and so on—are falling through it, particularly in the cultural sector. Can this matter be addressed as one of urgency? Frankly, it is insulting to say to musicians, who have spent a lifetime training, that they can retrain for something else.
I respect my noble friend’s passion for this area and I agree that it is an extremely important part of our society, as I said earlier. We have put forward a cultural recovery fund of some £1.5 billion, and of course we will continue to look carefully at what more can be done to support those who are falling through the net. I just remind my noble friend that our overall employment support scheme has been one of the most generous in Europe, but the group that he refers to is extremely difficult to get to easily.
My Lords, what discussions have taken place with ministerial colleagues in the DWP regarding the need to extend the minimum income floor of universal credit beyond 13 November for self-employed people during the Covid outbreak?
My Lords, the Sunday Times of last Sunday says that the Prime Minister has ordered a review which would allow
“City dealmakers, hedge fund managers and company bosses flying into the UK”
“exempt from the 14-day quarantine period under plans to ‘promote global Britain’.”
There are also stories that working lunches of up to 30 people, now being promoted by expensive London restaurants, can be allowed as long as business is discussed. Can the Minister confirm that anyone who is, or thinks they are, involved in global business, global Britain or business can therefore exempt themselves from these rules and that that can apply to anyone else? If not, how can the Government expect the rest of the country to comply while allowing their apparently rich friends to buck the system?
My Lords, I suspect that this is just speculation. I am certainly not aware of any government policy promoting that. As we know, groups of six people, socially distanced, can eat if they are in an outside setting. Those facilities are being made available by pubs and restaurants, but I am not aware of any special treatment that the noble Lord refers to.
My Lords, first, I thank the Minister, who, unlike some of his colleagues, has shown massive respect to the House and in responding to the questions that he has been asked. That being so, perhaps I may take him back to the first supplementary question, from the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, who called not for a coalition but for a united national effort, and I think that that is what the public want. If we stay in our tribes, we will not win. We have to reach out outside the tribe. I am looking for some desire on the part of the Government to seek to reach out, outside the tribe, so that we can have a national effort to get through this crisis. Does the Minister agree?
I certainly agree with the noble Lord that this requires a national effort and that we need to avoid tribalism at all costs. What has perhaps taken us all by surprise is the long-term reaction to the crisis that we will have to sustain. I think that most of us—certainly I speak personally—thought that we could handle three months of lockdown, after which it was hoped that we could get back to our lives. The brutal reality now is that this could roll on for even another year, depending on any progress on a vaccine, which is far from certain. Therefore, the longer it goes on, the more there is a need for us to rise above our sectarian differences and to operate as a whole country.
Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) (Amendment) (No. 2) Order 2020
Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) (Amendment) (No. 3) Order 2020
Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2020
Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) (Amendment) (England) (No. 2) Regulations 2020
Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) (Amendment) (England) (No. 3) Regulations 2020
Motion to Regret
That this House regrets that the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) (Amendment) (No. 2) Order 2020 (SI 2020/755), the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) (Amendment) (No. 3) Order 2020 (SI 2020/756), the Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2020 (SI 2020/757), the Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) (Amendment) (England) (No. 2) Regulations 2020 (SI 2020/859), and the Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) (Amendment) (England) (No. 3) Regulations 2020 (SI 2020/895) laid before the House on 21 July were made as delegated legislation because it would have been more appropriate to have brought forward such substantial and wide-ranging changes to the planning system in primary legislation.
Relevant document: 25th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee (special attention drawn to the instrument)
My Lords, I have two interconnected reasons for tabling this debate today: first, to examine the significance of the measures in these regulations, and, secondly, to scrutinise the parliamentary procedures used to introduce them. I look forward to the debate and particularly to the two maiden speeches that we will hear today.
The pieces of legislation that we are debating today were introduced using the weakest form of parliamentary scrutiny available—the negative procedure—and yet these measures, now laws, have a significant impact on planning policy in England. If they are indeed significant, and I maintain that they are, they have avoided the proper scrutiny that Parliament is supposed to provide to ensure they provide the best outcomes possible. The role of Parliament is to assess, amend and correct the laws of our land, and to ensure that the impact of any changes is fully understood. The negative procedure that brought these measures into law means that unless a Member prays against them within 40 days of their being laid, they will automatically enter into law. However, it is primarily a procedure meant for routine and non-controversial matters—the least form of scrutiny for the least controversial matters.
The policy issues in these orders have the effect of reducing the level of scrutiny that local people and their local councils have on a range of planning applications. This in turn raises concerns about the ability of local authorities to deal adequately with the needs of their local communities. The policy changes include making it easier to demolish vacant buildings to create new homes, with reduced scrutiny of the quality of new housing, and changing the use of certain properties—for example, changing the use of a building from an office to a restaurant, including a fast food restaurant—without the need for full planning permission.
These new laws also permit the building of additional storeys on houses and flats, with very limited ability for the local council to intervene. Of particular concern is that these additional storey regulations came in two batches, the second of which is before us today. Amazingly, the regulations on the charges to be applied for making these additional storey planning applications came to the House by the affirmative procedure, thereby guaranteeing a debate in the House, whereas the policy changes themselves on additional storeys on properties were brought in by the negative procedure. Therefore, the only way of getting a debate on these and the other planning changes, and the only way of having it discussed by the House, was to put down a take-note or regret Motion, of the kind we are using today.
I recognise that the ability of the Government to use these parliamentary procedures stems from the primary legislation on planning currently in place. However, it is also clear to me that that primary legislation did not envisage such large-scale changes to be dealt with in this way. Moreover, the Government are proposing new primary legislation in this area and have issued their White Paper, Planning for the Future. Given the Government’s intentions in the White Paper, it would have been the appropriate mechanism for introducing the widespread changes provided by these regulations. The Government state that the reason for their new planning Bill is:
“Thanks to our planning system, we have nowhere near enough homes in the right places.”
If that is the Government’s objective in these regulations then why not debate them properly in the course of this upcoming new primary legislation?
I draw the attention of the House to two facts worthy of consideration. First, planning permissions are already given for enough homes to meet the Government’s target of 300,000 a year. Secondly, there are about 1 million unbuilt homes for which planning permission has already been granted.
The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, of which I am a member, expressed big concerns about the restriction that these regulations place on the expression of local concerns that could be considered by councils. Additionally, the committee felt that the ability of local councils to shape the character of their high streets would be curtailed, in particular their ability to control the number of fast food restaurants in their areas.
The committee’s report to your Lordships’ House says that these new orders and regulations
“make substantial and wide-ranging changes to planning legislation”
and warrant much deeper scrutiny and analysis. If these changes had been made under primary legislation, such detailed scrutiny would have occurred. Better law depends on the detailed scrutiny and broader consultation which Parliament provides. Planning decisions are a delicate balance between different pressures on the use of our land. These measures move the needle away from local decision-makers and could damage the framework of our local communities. I agree with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, on the committee’s report:
“The more that secondary legislation is used for significant matters of policy, the more the balance of power is tipped towards the executive and away from parliament. For parliament to serve our citizens properly, it needs to have effective means of debating, scrutinising and deciding upon proposals such as these.”
The Motion today provides an opportunity to debate these matters. It would have been far better for this House, and us all, if the Government had engaged properly with Parliament to enable us to carry out our role effectively. I look forward to the upcoming maiden speeches by two new Members of the House, and to the Government explaining why they have taken this route and acknowledging the significance of these changes.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure and privilege to speak in your Lordships’ House for the first time and to follow the very passionate speech by the noble Lord, Lord German. I am immensely grateful for the warm welcome I have received from all sides of this House. The support from Black Rod, the Clerk of the Parliaments, attendants and other staff has also been greatly appreciated. I am especially grateful to my noble friends Lord Hendy and Lord Haskel for introducing me to this great House, and to my noble friends Lady Crawley and Lord Kennedy of Southwark for mentoring me.
A special year in my life was 1966. It was then that I arrived in England with my family to join my father, who had already come here a few years earlier. Regrettably, my full-time education ended in 1968, when I left school with no qualifications of any kind. After that, I worked full-time and studied part-time to acquire GCE O-levels and A-levels, professional accounting qualifications, an MSc in accounting and finance, a PhD in accounting and a BA in social sciences. Along the way, I worked as an accountant for some of the largest corporations in this country. I subsequently held professorships in accounting, or accounting and finance, at the University of East London, the University of Essex and the University of Sheffield. I published research in scholarly journals on matters such as accounting, auditing, corporate governance, insolvency, globalisation, tax avoidance, bribery and corruption, and my research received recognition from the British Academy and the US Academy.
Over the years, I have given evidence to many parliamentary committees in the UK and the European Union, and advised them as well. Most recently, I advised the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee on its investigations into the collapse of BHS and Carillion. My research has often focused on what I call the dark side of capitalism. For example, the UK has the highest number of qualified accountants per capita in the world, but this huge social investment has not really given us good corporate governance, reliable financial reports or even honest audits.
The problems are systemic, going far beyond the affairs of just BHS and Carillion. This country has had a banking crisis in every decade since the 1970s. The finance industry has been a serial mis-seller of products and has admitted to rigging exchange rates and interest rates. These events draw attention to very deep-seated cultural and regulatory fault lines, which really need to be looked at.
The UK is also the home of a rampant tax avoidance industry, which enables companies to avoid taxes by shifting profits to low or no-tax jurisdictions through intragroup transactions. My response to that was to join up with some colleagues; in 2003, I became a co-founder of the Tax Justice Network, with the sole aim of sensitising people to how taxes are avoided and what the social consequences are.
I am a person from a working-class background, somewhat overawed at being here, and I wondered what on earth my objectives should be. I think there are really only two: to increase people’s prosperity and people’s happiness—there can be no other objective. However, in a country where 14 million people live below the poverty line, it seems that both happiness and prosperity are in short supply.
Some 250 years ago, Adam Smith said:
“No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.”
Smith suggested—and it is highly relevant today—that policymakers need to focus not only on what can be done but, above all, on what should be done. And, of course, there are numerous obstacles in trying to do what should be done. Here, I take some comfort in the immortal lines from Winifred Holtby’s great novel South Riding:
“We’ve got to have courage, to take our future into our hands. If the law is oppressive, we must change the law. If tradition is obstructive, we must break tradition. If the system is unjust, we must reform the system.”
These sentiments were also expressed by the noble Lord, Lord German, in his speech, with a recognition that decent, well-planned and affordable housing is key to people’s prosperity and happiness.
My Lords, I am honoured to follow the excellent maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Sikka. He has had an acknowledged academic career, during which he has relentlessly shone a clear spotlight on the self-interested behaviour of various corporations that are acting against the public interest. He has shown how they have often been unchecked by the accountants and the banks—truly, as he said, the dark side of capitalism. His lifetime of working for justice in the taxation and accountancy fields will be of great value to your Lordships’ House, and I look forward to working with him.
I also welcome the opportunity that the noble Lord, Lord German, has grasped in bringing forward his concerns. These statutory instruments reveal how the Government have become excessively fixated on housing delivery in their approach to the planning system, almost to the exclusion of all other issues. According to a government response to a parliamentary Question, these instruments are aimed at reducing planning bureaucracy and speeding up housing development. Now everyone in this House recognises the need to build more houses of good quality in the right place, and which are, above all, affordable; but we also know that laying the blame for lack of housing delivery at the feet of the planning system is a wrong premise. There are already over 1 million houses that have been granted planning approval which have not yet been built and will not be built for many years, as developers build out sites sparingly to avoid reducing housing prices locally—the exact opposite of what the Government are trying to achieve.
These statutory instruments are also harbingers of the sort of stripping down of the planning system that the Government’s overall planning reforms, which are currently out for consultation, will bring. Those proposals will considerably reduce the say of local people over what gets built and where in their local area. The planning system used to be one of the few forms of genuine democracy in this country, balancing competing local development needs and making decisions locally. But local authority planning departments have been hollowed out, denuded of specialists and hounded by an unholy alliance of government and housebuilders to give in to any housing development that will help them meet the government-imposed housebuilding targets.
These targets are now highly questionable. Covid has radically changed the view of many people as to where they will want to live and work remotely. The targets are based on estimates of population growth, which included 5 million net additional migrants to this country—and that is now highly unlikely to happen on this scale. Surely the Government need to reassess the housing targets urgently, if only to address the two issues of Covid and immigration.
We already build the smallest houses in Europe. The Government’s own review has revealed that housing built under permitted-development rights is of a worse than average quality. Can the Minister tell us what he plans to do about this, and what safeguards will be put in place to prevent this widened permitted-development regime building even more substandard housing? Can he also tell us how these statutory instruments accord with the Government’s stated desire in the planning system consultation for beauty, high quality and sustainability, when permitted developments are exempt from the local services infrastructure payments that are so often vital for enabling place-making and the development of sustainable, fair local communities?
My Lords, it is a tremendous honour to be able to contribute to this important debate, and to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Young. I add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, on his excellent maiden speech.
I will start by thanking all those—both Members and staff of this House—who have been so kind with their time and generous in welcoming me to this place. In particular, I thank my two introducers, my noble friend Lord Arbuthnot, who 15 years ago took me under his wing when he was chair of the Defence Select Committee and I a new member, and my noble friend Lord Randall. I must say that ours was a slightly less cordial first meeting when I was a very junior Member of Parliament and he a very senior Whip. After what, frankly, could only be described as a good dinner with fellow new MPs, I found myself coerced into being a rebel Teller on the Crossrail Bill, which was something of a surprise to the Whips. We all know that Whips do not like surprises but, to my noble friend’s credit, his only concern was not that I was rebelling but that I knew what I was doing and did not make a fool of myself in the Chamber of the House of Commons—and we have been firm friends ever since. It was fun, but government Whips can rest easy; I might wait a couple of weeks before trying the same thing here.
I confess that I was rather hoping to be able to give my maiden speech on 5 November. Fifteen years ago—exactly 400 years after the Gunpowder Plot—I became the first fireworks manufacturer to be elected to Parliament. My family firm, sadly now sold, was founded by my father, the Reverend Lancaster—to some an eccentric cleric, to me my dad, and to the industry affectionately known as the “Master Blaster Pastor”. Noble Lords will have seen his fireworks at the Hong Kong handover, the London Olympics and, for many years, on New Year’s Eve here on the river. Alas, my date of 5 November was not to be. It appears that my arrival in this place has caused such concern that we may not be sitting next Friday, for fear that I will attempt to repeat the events of 1605.
However, I offer noble Lords some reassurance that I come to this place with some useful skills. I am a qualified bomb disposal officer. I started my career in Hong Kong with the Queen’s Gurkha Engineers. I continue to serve after 32 years in the Army Reserve and I am very proud to be chairing the Reserve Forces 2030 review. I continue my links with the Brigade of Gurkhas as the deputy colonel commandant. It was perhaps my operational service in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan that led me into politics. War is a terrible thing and it has left a lasting impression on me. I found myself agreeing with Winston Churchill that
“Meeting jaw to jaw is better than war.”
That inspired me to stand for Parliament.
There seems to be a tradition, in the Commons at least, of Ministers being appointed to a department for which they have little or no relevant experience. Perhaps I and my noble friend the Minister are exceptions to this rule; I was deeply honoured to be a Minister at the Ministry of Defence for five years, ending my time there as Minister for the Armed Forces. I challenge anyone not to be uplifted by spending time with our service men and women. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to all those who have made such a contribution to our nation.
My wife, Caroline Dinenage, is Minister for Digital and Culture and a veteran now of some six departments. She always says to me that I am so lucky only to have served in one, and I always tell her that she is and always will be a far better Minister than I ever was.
I am equally proud to have represented Milton Keynes for nearly 15 years, a wonderful city of wonderful people, all with a positive can-do attitude. In Milton Keynes it is rare, if ever, for a political party to have a majority, and this means a level of party-political co-operation rarely seen elsewhere. That is just the sort of approach and attitude that I intend to bring during my time in this place. Situated at the centre of the Oxford-Cambridge arc, Milton Keynes is an area of high growth that is in desperate need of new housing if it is to continue to attract skilled workers and to be the economic powerhouse it is.
The measures before us today are a positive move by the Government, giving homeowners the freedom to extend their own homes as their families grow and for us to regenerate the brownfield areas of our towns and cities. There is just one area where I seek reassurance from the Minister: that the conversion of family homes into houses in multiple occupation will still require planning permission. As my noble friend knows, an excess of HMOs in any community brings with it a whole host of challenges worthy of an entirely separate debate in this Chamber.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, on his excellent maiden speech. I am sure we look forward to many such contributions in future.
I also congratulate my noble friend Lord Lancaster of Kimbolton on his fine maiden speech. We entered the House of Commons together 15 years ago. He served for far longer than I did as a Minister and, as he reminded us, was and is a serving officer in the Army. His bomb disposal experience is a talent that may well be deployed in the Whips’ Office; I am sure they will be in touch with him shortly. At the tender age of 50, he is one of the younger Members of your Lordships’ House. His achievements are indeed so great that I am reminded of Gore Vidal’s much-quoted statement that
“Whenever a friend succeeds”
“a little something in me dies.”
I must say to my noble friend that that was not the case in relation to his excellent speech.
On the legislation, I want to make two simple points. First, irrespective of the process issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord German, I believe it is a good thing in principle that government policy is focused on encouraging and facilitating development on brownfield sites, so that it is as easy and rapid as possible; otherwise, we face very difficult choices regarding the development of greenfield sites. One can imagine that the Covid epidemic will result in considerable changes in the use of buildings. That particular permitted development has led to the creation of tens of thousands of homes.
Process apart, the use of these orders has given rise to two concerns, the first of which is design quality. I urge the Minister and the Government to have regard to good design in how these permitted development orders are applied, because it is the absence of good design that has driven down public support for development generally.
Secondly, and in conclusion, so far as process is concerned, the noble Lord, Lord German, is right about the importance of parliamentary discussion and scrutiny of major changes to development. That is particularly true of a related matter: the new formula to be applied to development on greenfield sites, which has been described by my successor as Member of Parliament for Arundel and South Downs, Andrew Griffith, as a “mutant algorithm”. I do not believe that the current formula can stand. It is so much better if we can ensure that development starts on brownfield sites. That is why the formula in its current iteration is wrongly calibrated, and why, in principle, the permitted development orders that encourage development on brownfield sites are right.
I am delighted to be sharing the Chamber today with our two new Members, who are clearly going to bring to it the considerable expertise for which we are known and renowned—but, I expect, from very different perspectives.
My noble friend Lord German was right to table his Motion as it seems there is much disquiet about these and previous SIs, as well as the proposals in the Government’s current White Paper. Our concern is that taken together these constitute, in the words of a government Minister, the most significant changes to the planning system in 20 years and, in the words of another, a complete overhaul of the planning system. Thus, we feel there has not been sufficient consultation, or opportunities to really know and understand the cumulative impact of the Government’s legislative changes.
I too question the premise on which the current policy direction appears to be based: that the underdelivery of homes is largely the fault of the planning system. It has been mentioned many times in this Chamber that 90% of permissions are actually granted and that close to a million permissions have still not been built out. I wonder if there is something in the Government’s new proposal to take care of that, but I do not believe there is. The Letwin report also made it clear that the financial model on which the construction industry is based is far more significant in affecting the actual delivery of homes. I hope that we can have another debate on this issue, as in my experience it is a very complex one and government agencies also play their part in planning delays.
Permitted development rights were rightly introduced to reduce bureaucracy in specific and clearly understood circumstances, but these SIs drive a coach and horses through the normal system of judging and determining a proposed development. Together, the changes represent a significant shift in control away from local authorities and the communities they represent towards a significantly less regulated environment. I believe that nationally prescribed development rights disempower communities and local councils. Is it too cynical of me to suggest that that is the intention?
It is also clear that the Government’s current White Paper foreshadows the possibility of further changes to the entire planning system over the coming months, and it may well be that further permitted development reforms follow. This is perhaps why there is considerable disquiet and concern in many quarters. Alan Jones, president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, said of the Government that the arrogance and lack of understanding was “breathtaking.”
It is not just RIBA that thinks the extensions to permitted development are a bad idea. They are opposed by the Royal Town Planning Institute, the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, the Chartered Institute of Building, the Chartered Institute of Housing, the Town and Country Planning Association, and more. Uniting all of these organisations, which are far from always being in happy harmony, is a remarkable achievement and a sign of the real problems of this approach that need to be looked into. Apart from those who seek to make serious money from these changes, it is hard to see who supports them.
The reputable planning consultancy, Lichfields, has stated that the changes are very significant, but are only the tip of the iceberg for potential planning changes on the immediate horizon. Hence the collective concern that the Government have failed to allow adequate time and scrutiny for these SIs and we have had no concrete reassurances as to how they will be evaluated in their totality. That is a concern which appears to be justified when you consider that the Government’s independently commissioned work on permitted development rights was damning. The report of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission’s notes that permitted development rights for office-to-residential change of use has led to much criticism for diminishing quality, delivering lower levels of affordable housing and reducing developer contributions. Those are three key issues. The Commission concludes that PDRs
“have inadvertently permissioned future slums … allowing sub-standard homes to be built with little to no natural light and smaller than budget hotel rooms.”
Can the Minister offer any serious reassurance that these concerns have been addressed?
The Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee produced a report in 2019 on the future of the high street which said:
“The Government should suspend any further extension of PDRs, pending an evaluation of their impact on the high street.”
Yet in these SIs we see significant changes to class uses that we have heard little about but which I have no doubt will have some concerns.
Do the Government intend to do a cumulative impact assessment of these and other recent SIs in tandem with the current proposals in the pipeline? If not, why not, and if yes, whoopie, but when?
My Lords, I pay tribute to the two maiden speeches we have heard today. What excellent contributions they were and what very welcome additions to the House they are. In the noble Lords, Lord Sikka and Lord Lancaster, we now have an expert on accountancy and an expert on bomb disposal. Both of them will be useful attributes in a House that is already well stocked with a variety of expertise.
While sharing the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord German, about the manner in which these regulations have been brought into play, concerns that many of us have voiced today, I have to say that unlike the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill, I welcome these amendments. The planning system has long been in need of simplification and these amount to a largely positive step towards that simplification. It has long seemed to me that the generally flat roofs of supermarkets are crying out to have residential accommodation built on top. The GPDO No. 2 amendment order makes that easier.
We also need to see rapid changes to our high streets, which these regulations will enable. The noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill, talked about bringing changes to our high streets to a standstill, but everywhere I look there are shops that have closed down because of Covid and they will not open again. Bringing life back into those areas by being as flexible as possible about the uses to which premises can be put seems a sensible step.
However, the Government still seem to struggle with standing back and allowing builders to get on with it. I have some specific questions for the Minister. First, can he tell me why, if a new storey is put on top of an existing block of flats, there is a stipulation that the internal room height may not exceed 3 metres? I love the idea of building penthouses on top of blocks of flats and making them light and airy with ceilings as high as the Victorians used to enjoy. That may not make economic sense, but why do the Government have to put a stipulation on what the internal room height may be?
Why do the Government have to limit the building right to buildings constructed before 5 March 2018, as the GDPO does? Why should a building which was constructed and finished only last year not have the right to potentially have two storeys put on top? I would be grateful if the Minister could address that point. Further, as others have pointed out, we should acknowledge the fact that planning permission is not what is leading to such a shortage of housing in this country. It is the fact that those planning permissions are not developed. We need to find a way to speed up how development takes place. Why, then, do these regulations stipulate that planning permission will last for three years if a new development to be put on top of an existing development? Why is it not limited to just one year, thus providing an incentive for the work to be done? It seems ludicrous that we should continue to allow developers and builders to have the right to build but not an obligation to pursue that and deliver the housing that we so badly need?
In connection with that, can the Minister say whether he will find a means of favouring prefabricated housing, which will make these developments happen much faster?
I too thank the noble Lord, Lord German, for providing this opportunity to debate these measures and I note his very important point about procedure, particularly when dealing with such a controversial subject. I also join with other noble Lords in congratulating the two new Peers who made their maiden speeches today.
My starting point, like that of others, is that it is vital to get more housing and that we use brownfield sites. But—and there are many buts, relating to quality, the impact on health, and the impact of blighting some areas. I want to make five points and to suggest a way forward.
First, the current permitted development regime has had many damaging impacts in parts of the country—not everywhere, but in many places. I think of areas like Hounslow and Harlow where very poor housing has resulted from permitted development, with houses in factories, in industrial units, and houses that are simply not suitable for their purpose. That is not just about individual suffering because it can also blight an area and an economy. On Monday, a Bradford architect pointed out to me the effect of cheap and shoddy development on an area, particularly somewhere like Bradford, which is desperately seeking to revitalise the centre of town. Building slums in the centre of Bradford is not going to help. Building slums in poor areas magnifies existing problems. I believe that these regulations do nothing to improve the situation; looking at them in detail shows that they add complexity to an already complex situation.
Looking ahead, we all understand, I am sure, the link between housing and health, and how poor housing can damage mental and physical health in all kinds of ways, from cold and damp to air and noise pollution, overcrowding, fire safety and much more. The evidence is compelling and Covid has reinforced this point for all of us. What if we thought about this differently and thought about developing housing that was deliberately built to enhance health and well-being, and promote human flourishing? Should that not be our aim, rather than just producing cheap and rather shoddy developments?
On a positive note, I am delighted that the Government have accepted the principle that there must be standards of access to daylight, and space standards. I stress “standards”; not things to be considered during development, but clear, compulsory standards. This is a very important precedent to have set. I suggest that we need standards in other areas, too, from noise insulation to air pollution and access to green spaces and amenities. There is a way forward. The Town and Country Planning Association has produced a draft Bill on healthy housing, which does precisely what I suggest. It places the focus on developing housing for health and well-being, liveability and resilience in the face of future pandemics, and sets out 10 areas for principles and standards that all developments must follow. I hope that it will be introduced in Parliament in due course, but I would welcome the opportunity to discuss it with the Minister in the meantime.
This proposed Bill has an additional advantage. Current planning and building regulations are horribly complex, contradictory and confusing. The Bill offers a new focus on a single set of essential principles and standards that has the potential to clarify the situation and unify the way forward. So I hope that the Minister will consider this point. Does he agree that it is important that the Government build on the precedent that they have already set on access to daylight and space standards—the precedent of introducing “standards”, not “things to consider”—in additional areas that will ensure that all developments are of high quality and suitable design? Can he give the House a date when the space standards referred to in the other place will be brought into effect?
My Lords, I have an unstable connection so I may not be with you for very long. However, I welcome the noble Lords, Lord Sikka and Lord Lancaster, whose maiden speeches were excellent. Their characters shone through, and I look forward to meeting them both. I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord German, on moving this Motion. He has reflected a lot of universal concerns, one of which he called the “balance of power”.
The Government’s White Paper proposes a total overhaul of the English planning system, which will require primary legislation, but they have now brought in these piecemeal regulations which themselves make huge changes to the planning system. They really should have brought them as part of primary legislation that could be fully considered, rather than rushing them through as secondary legislation.
In the planning White Paper, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government said:
“We will build environmentally friendly homes that will not need to be expensively retrofitted in the future, homes with green spaces and new parks at close hand, where tree lined streets are the norm and where neighbours are not strangers.”
Yet nothing in these regulations delivers on those green ambitions. The Government have missed a huge opportunity to require people to bring their homes up to modern high standards of energy efficiency and thermal comfort when adding new storeys to their home. Obviously, the best and most cost-effective time to do that is when other major works are being done—so it is absurd that the Government are not tying these two things together. They really must put green, carbon-neutral, planet-positive development at the heart of their plans—and at the moment they really are not.
I recognise that there is a green benefit to increasing housing density by adding new storeys to existing houses. It is better to use the footprint of an existing home to protect the green belt and nature, but—and it is a very big but—adding two storeys to many homes, particularly in a rural setting, will have a huge impact on the neighbours. Residents will be incredibly shocked and distraught if they suddenly find that they have a loss of amenity—of a view, of privacy or of sunlight. This will not go down well with people. Have the Government really thought it through? Are they prepared to let residents suffer as a result of this policy?
My Lords, I declare my interest as a member of a planning committee, among other things, in a local authority. I very much support the comments made by my noble friend Lord German on the way in which this has been rushed out under the cover of Covid-19. There has been no consultation on the details, as opposed to the principles. Some of them, such as the use class changes, would have benefited from some pilot studies on real issues in real places, to see how it is going to happen. There will be a lot of unintended consequences of this.
Having said that, I want to raise two or three specific points. The first, following on from the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, is about the number of neighbour disputes that the proposed new use classes AA and AC will result in. Those of us who have spent too much of our lives on planning committees and within planning know perfectly well how nasty things can get and how disputes can develop on existing planning applications for ordinary extensions—two-storey extensions and so on. The idea is that people will have a fast track to extensions upwards by one or two storeys, but just imagine a couple of semi-detached houses where one is going to be doubled in height. This will result in a lot of aggro, as the noble Baroness suggested. Also, the fact that a rapid, fast-tracked process will be able to push this through beyond the normal planning permission will result in a great deal of disquiet. Quite frankly, I wish the Conservatives the best in explaining this to people who feel like this.
The Explanatory Memorandum says that, given the impact on neighbours during the construction of the additional storeys and any engineering works to strengthen the building,
“the developer must prepare a report setting out the proposed hours of operation and how they intend to minimise any adverse impacts of noise, dust, vibration and traffic movements during the building works on occupiers of the building and neighbouring premises”.
It does not say what the strength and value of such a report will be. Will that report have to be approved by the local planning authority? If it is breached—if the hours of operation are breached, for example, and people start working at midnight—will the local planning authority be able to step in and stop the work? It is not at all clear if that will be the case. So that is my specific question on that.
My second general point is on design. The report Planning Reform: Supporting the High Street and Increasing the Delivery of New Homes says that the Government will consult on the detail of a proposed right which would allow vacant commercial buildings and residential blocks to be demolished and replaced with well-designed new residential units. Previously, the Conservatives had promised us a new generation of “beautiful” buildings. The new National Planning Policy Framework follows up on this, suggesting that where development would be consistent with the prevailing height and form of neighbouring properties and the overall street scene, can maintain safe access, et cetera, it will be okay.
My second question to the Minister is: how much power will local authorities really have to rely on the NPPF to demand that these new extensions and the new buildings, where buildings have been demolished, are of good design and, indeed, beautiful? Will that be an overriding issue, or will the fact that full planning permission is not required mean that it will actually be something of a chimera?
My third point is about town centres. I am checking how much time I have—not very much. I will just say one sentence, then. The implications of all this for the ability of local authorities and councils, not just as planning authorities but as authorities looking after and managing the future of their town centres, will be reduced considerably. There are huge concerns about this.
I, too, welcome my noble friend Lord Sikka and the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster, to this House and congratulate them both on their outstanding public service. I look forward to opportunities to share future debates and platforms with them.
Which local areas and regional governments would not rejoice in billions of pounds of housing investment and regeneration in their locality, unless, as is the purview of these statutory instruments, this lacked accountability and scrutiny from local councils and communities? I thank and agree with the noble Lord, Lord German, and other noble Lords. Many of us have repeatedly challenged, on countless occasions over these past few months, the necessity of integrating essential services, such as planning and housing matters, within the Covid emergency legislation remit—which is seriously questionable—while silencing and discarding voices without due process of scrutiny and oversight at the local level, oblivious to the needs of local communities, whose lives will be affected by these decisions.
The Royal Institute of British Architects, the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the Local Government Association, Friends of the Earth and the Royal Town Planning Institute have stated their deep misgivings about and objections to these emergency regulations, which conflict with the well-being of people, the environment and communities. Any new housing and planning strategies would be very welcome if these would immediately be the basis of mitigating chronic shortages of family housing, overcrowding and the lack of adequate independent housing for our elders and those living with disabilities. Any permitted development must absorb local demands from housing and community regeneration plans.
Nine in 10 applications are approved by local authorities while more than a million homes have yet to have a brick laid. Will the Minister mandate these developers to commence these as part of the regulations and impose a timeframe for immediate implementation and, if they do not, impose a fine or demand that they return the land at cost price so that social landlords, including local authorities, can utilise them for residents’ needs?
The Government stand accused of creating and approving a developers’ charter, but these criticisms have been dismissed as nonsense. I trust that the Minister will accept that there would not have been any scope for such criticism and questions had the Government not decided to bypass and disapply Section 106, which has provided, in some places and communities, significant benefits and gains. That would be even more the case had this Government stated unequivocally that permitted developments will form an integral part of local authorities’ planning process and work with social housing organisations hand in glove to resolve the decades-old quality-housing shortage, which, as the Minister is aware, has hugely impacted and hindered health protection during this emergency period.
Instead, the Government are asking this House to be complicit in persisting with further structures of social division and inequality and more concrete jungles. Why are we constantly ignoring lessons from our past? The developments of Bishopsgate and Canary Wharf are empty ghost towns today; neither delivered on promises of jobs for local people and community regeneration. There was significant outcry at the time, and the demands of grassroots campaigners for social justice and inclusive development for public scrutiny for a fairer settlement fell on deaf ears and boosted the bank balance of the big developers and the big boys’ support network. Residents living in their shadow put up with years of environmental and health pollution without an iota of benefit for their families. Of course, I should admit that hospitality sectors use low-pay and zero-hours contracted staff, who are definitely locally sourced.
What is evident in these regulations is that the new pledges for building back beautiful homes are certainly not communities’ aspiration for improved life chances and better housing for their families but draconian imposition by a Government determined to push through measures that continue to exclude fundamental rights of communities and residents’ voices in housing and other developments. I thank noble Lords, and I apologise for any errors.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord German on his introduction to this debate. As always, he lays the case out extremely clearly. I also welcome and congratulate the noble Lords, Lord Sikka and Lord Lancaster of Kimbolton, on their excellent maiden speeches. I feel certain that they will both make valuable contributions to our future debates.
We have had a canter around this issue previously and not reached a satisfactory conclusion. I declare my entry in the register of interests. Local councils know their communities, spending time and energy consulting them on both housing and services. Extending permitted development rights drives a coach and horses through this process; the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, has illustrated this. I understand the Government’s wish to regenerate town centres but am having difficulty seeing just how these measures will achieve that. Over 13,500 affordable homes have been lost in four years through permitted development rights by homes converted from offices, leading to worse living conditions, lacking basic infrastructure requirements.
Order 755, for the upward extension to blocks of flats and buildings without planning permission, is fraught. There will be up to two additional storeys on terraced houses, limited to 3.5 meters above the next-door house in the terrace. I can just imagine what a terrace of 10 houses will look like with three houses extended upwards but not adjacent to each other, the carefully crafted original design thrown completely out of the window. The Explanatory Memorandum to this SI says:
“additional storeys must be of similar appearance”
and construction. Who will check this if there is no planning approval? My noble friend Lord Greaves referred to this.
Paragraph 7.12 of the Explanatory Memorandum states:
“the local planning authority … will consider certain matters relating to the … construction”,
design, elevation et cetera and notify adjoining properties. Surely, this is what a planning application would cover? There are also issues of parking. If more dwellings are added upwards on the same site, where will the parking required be provided? Poor housing as a result of PDR has been raised by other Peers, including the noble Lord, Lord Crisp.
The demolition of an existing dwelling and construction of new one in its place could be welcomed, especially if the existing dwelling had fallen into disrepair. In this context, the word “old” keeps coming up in the Explanatory Memorandum. There are exceptions that apply to conservation areas. Can the Minister clarify whether this would also apply to grade 2 listed buildings not in conservation areas that had fallen into disrepair? Would it be sufficient if they had been empty for six months prior to demolition and redevelopment? I welcome the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster of Kimbolton, on HMOs and look forward to the Minister’s response.
I also note under order 755 that building on agricultural land requires the express permission of the landlord and tenant. Can the Minister say what will happen if the landlord gives permission but the tenant, who has been working the land, does not?
The Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2020 (SI 2020/757) revoke the use classes order. They could include cinemas, dance halls and food takeaways. In future, a change of use will not be needed. With cinemas currently shut, I can see some trouble ahead on this front. Local authorities and their elected councillors take care in the licensing of hot food takeaways, especially in residential areas. They are much better situated in a small row of retail shops serving the residential area than in the middle of a street of dwellings. Considerable neighbour annoyance can be caused by late-night takeaways.
The PDR to support high streets involves a range of changes of use without an application process, for instance from financial services to a betting or pay-day loan shop. Do we really want this to go unregulated at this time, when suicides caused by gambling are at an all-time high? Drinking establishments can change to residential use. Can the Minister give clarity on what class drinking establishments will now fall into? Local pubs were already under severe threat before the Covid lockdown. Some are shut and may not reopen. Their communities will certainly miss them in rural areas.
There are also changes to the community infrastructure levy, which will allegedly avoid confusion. They will also affect local authority budgets.
Lastly, the Town and Country Panning (Use Classes) (Amendment) (England) (No. 3) Regulations 2020 (SI 2020/895) alter the words “280 metres square” to “280 square metres”, a minor but significant interpretation. What can we expect when regulations are introduced at such short notice? Four weeks later, we are having to amend them.
Much has been said previously about local authorities delaying the planning process. This is not true. As my noble friend Lady Thornhill said, more than 90% of applications are approved in a timely manner. The problem is that more than 1 million applications granted are waiting to be built. A handful of developers hold all the land and are sitting on it until it suits them to build out. What is needed is a legal timeframe for completing a development from the date the planning application approval was granted.
The zoning measures in the planning White Paper diverge from carefully crafted local plans. They undermine elected councillors who know their areas. It would have been far better to wait until the end of the consultation period on the planning White Paper before laying these permitted development rights instruments. The White Paper responses and these measures could have been properly analysed together. I fully support my noble friend Lord German.
My Lords, I first draw the attention of the House to my relevant registered interests as a vice-president of the Local Government Association, chair of the Heart of Medway Housing Association and a non-executive director of MHS Homes Ltd.
I offer my congratulations to my noble friend Lord Sikka on his maiden speech. He brings a wealth of experience from accountancy and academia and is an advocate of tax justice. I am very much of the opinion that we and all organisations should pay our fair share of tax. Considerable light has been shone on organisations that seem not to pay their fair share, which of course is picked up by all the rest of us. I look forward to hearing more from my noble friend.
I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster of Kimbolton, on his maiden speech. He has served as a councillor, a Member of the other place representing Milton Keynes—I know it fairly well—a Whip and a Minister at the Ministry of Defence. He also brings a wealth of experience, as we have heard, which will be invaluable to this House. If he ever wants to rebel, he will find a warm welcome on these Benches. I very much agreed with the point he made about cross-party working. In my time in this House over the past 10 years, the best things we have agreed have been when Members from all sides have come together and understood, agreed and sorted problems out. I look forward to getting to know both noble Lords and wish them well in their time in this House.
I also thank the noble Lord, Lord German, for bringing forward his Motion to Regret. From this debate we can see that issues and concerns have been raised because of the action the Government are taking which are widely felt in this House and outside. Having served as a councillor on two local authorities, I am disappointed by the Government’s approach. Good planning, good community development and consultation empower communities and enable them to have ownership of the development of the built environment around them. There is a role for permitted development, but these statutory instruments, using the negative procedure, go too far, as the noble Lord, Lord German, made clear in his Motion to Regret.
If the Government are going to do this, issues of this magnitude should have been enacted through a much wider debate and, ideally, primary legislation. The proposals disempower communities and local authorities and deprive local councils and locally elected councillors of the ability to consider the facts and make decisions based on evidence, local knowledge and an understanding of their local community.
I was very grateful to the LGA for its briefing. I was shocked to read that 13,500 affordable homes have been lost in the past four years through permitted development rights allowing offices to be converted into homes without the need for a full planning application. It was also interesting to read the Government’s commissioned research from the Minister’s department, which highlighted that conversions through permitted development can fail to meet adequate design standards, avoid contributing to areas and create worse living environments. Surely the Government and the Minister do not want to make the situation worse and create the slums of tomorrow. With that in mind, can he set out for the House how these fears will not be realised?
Of what benefit is it to our communities that permitted development rights have lost affordable homes being built? These proposals have only made the situation worse. Communities are denied the ability to ensure that high standards are met and that supporting infrastructure is in place. The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee raised similar concerns in its report published last month. Will the Minister address the committee’s concerns about how local authorities will shape the character of their high streets under these new rules, particularly regarding the ability to control the spread of fast-food restaurants in their area?
My noble friend Lady Young of Old Scone and the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill, highlighted that we have planning permission for 1 million homes, but they have not been built. That is not a failure of planning; it is a failure to get the homes built. Housing developers, as we have heard, will build homes in line with their business model. I understand that, it is a perfectly reasonable thing to do, but we need the Government to address the policy issues around getting homes built and not focus on planning.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Herbert of South Downs, that building on brownfield sites is preferable to building on greenfield sites. I also agree with his comments on the need for good design and good quality. My concern here is that these proposed regulations risk doing the exact opposite of what he and I want to see. I also agree with the concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill, about further extensions of permitted development rights. I would be interested to hear the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, set out how we will ensure that these fears will not happen.
I also agree very much with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, who drew the attention of the House to the link between housing and health. Damp, poorly built, poorly ventilated and poorly insulated properties will only make matters worse for people and families—often poor people—further reducing their life chances and those of their children.
We have seen all those flats built in the 1960s and 1970s being torn down as a failure of government public policy or huge sums being spent to retrofit them because of inadequate building design. The test of this policy will be whether that tragedy is repeated. The victims who pay the price are the families who have to live in those homes.
The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, rightly raised concerns that smaller developments in residential areas that would have needed planning permission will now go through permitted development. This will prove controversial in many communities and will not be popular where out-of-character developments start springing up in stable communities.
These are matters that the House will return to many times. Whatever the good intentions behind these proposals, they will not deliver high-quality, well-designed homes or the high streets that sustain local communities or provide the infrastructure to support communities and help them thrive. Proper government policy and intention need to be here to get this right. Sadly, the Government have got it wrong in this case.
My Lords, I draw attention to my relevant commercial and residential property interests as set out in the register. We have had an interesting and wide-ranging debate and I thank the noble Lord, Lord German, for tabling the motion, and the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee for its report drawing the statutory instruments to the House’s attention. I also thank noble Lords on all sides of the House for their contributions.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Thornhill and Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, raised the Planning for the Future White Paper. We published it in August to set out our proposals for planning reform, and it recognises that the current planning system is complex and slow. I assure my noble friend Lord Herbert that there is absolutely no desire to build on England’s green and pleasant land: the focus must be on brownfield site development.
A number of noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord German, Lord Kennedy of Southwark and Lord Greaves, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb and Lady Thornhill, raised important process issues. The statutory instruments being considered today are made under Section 59 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. That primary legislation enables the Secretary of State, through secondary legislation, to make a development order. Therefore, these statutory instruments were laid before Parliament under the negative resolution procedure, as is normal for all new permitted development rights.
The noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, pointed out the positive impacts and benefits. Indeed, these measures form a package to support our economic response to coronavirus. They support the delivery of much-needed new homes through a simpler planning system and help businesses to continue to operate safely and respond quickly to changes in how communities use their high streets. The noble Lords, Lord Kennedy of Southwark and Lord Crisp, the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, and my noble friend Lord Herbert all raised the issue of quality design and space. To ensure that the new homes delivered under permitted development rights are quality homes, we have made it a requirement that natural light be provided in all habitable rooms of new homes delivered under such rights. We announced in the other place on 30 September that we will lay regulations to require all new homes delivered through permitted development rights to meet the nationally described space standards. To answer the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, these will be introduced at the earliest opportunity.
The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, raised the issue that development can have a negative impact on neighbours and that this may occur during the construction of additional homes by building upwards. To ensure that this is considered before works commence, the developer has to prepare a report setting out the proposed hours of operation and how it intends to minimise any adverse impact of noise, dust, vibration and traffic movements during the building works on occupiers of the building and neighbouring premises. The local authority will consider whether the details set out in the construction management plan are appropriate. Where it is agreed that the developer is in breach of the plan, the local authority can take enforcement action.
The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, and the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, in his excellent maiden speech, raised the issue of affordable housing. Permitted development rights do not require affordable housing provision, which is predominantly delivered as part of the local planning authority’s housing programme. Local planning authorities are required to build for their housing needs, including for affordable housing provision. Permitted development rights, including the new rights for upwards extensions and demolition and rebuild, create new homes that support our ambition to increase housing delivery. They provide additional homes for sale or rent which may otherwise not have been developed. They are, to coin a phrase, “a Brucie bonus”. The new permitted development rights for upward extensions could be used by registered providers or local authorities on their blocks of flats or houses to create new affordable homes or additional living space for their tenants.
I congratulate my noble friend Lord Lancaster on an outstanding maiden speech. He made pointed reference to his dad, “the Master Blaster Pastor”, and I am delighted that he joins us in the House. I can confirm to him that the new permitted development rights do not allow the creation of houses in multiple occupation: the rights only allow single-dwelling houses, C3 use class, to build additional storeys, to extend a home or create new homes. An application for planning permission would be required if an owner wished to change such an extended home or a new flat into either a small house in multiple occupation or a large one for more than six people not living as a family. I hope that reassures my noble friend.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Uddin and Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, raised the issue of a contribution by developers. Where new dwellings or additional floorspace are created through the rights, and a local authority has a charging schedule in place, a community infrastructure levy may be payable. We have consulted in the planning White Paper on the principle of introducing an infrastructure levy on permitted development schemes going forward. To answer the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill, we continue to keep all rights under review in the cumulative impact assessment.
The noble Lord, Lord German, and the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, mentioned the reduced impact of community engagement as a result of these permitted development rights. The permitted development rights for building upwards and demolition and rebuild are subject to prior approval by the local planning authority. This allows the consideration of key planning matters. I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, and the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, that among other matters, it can consider the external appearance of the building and the impact of the development on the amenity of the existing building and neighbouring premises, which includes overlooking, privacy and loss of light. The local authority is required put up a site notice and serve notice on all neighbours and occupiers. As with an application for planning permission, it must allow 21 days for comment on the proposals. Objections can be made on the matters for prior approval set out in the right, and the local authority is required to take into account any representations made to it as a result of any consultation when making its decision.
In answer to a specific point raised by my noble friend Lady Wheatcroft, the cap on height is to ensure that the maximum number of floors are created and to prevent the creation of one larger penthouse where two storeys of new homes could be created. This is all about the delivery of important, much-needed new housing. We must build, build, build, for the sake of our children and our children’s children. Delivering new homes and supporting our high streets and town centres is a key priority for this Government. These regulations are an important tool to help drive up housing delivery by simplifying and speeding up the planning system. They will also help town centre uses adapt to changing market demands, while providing protections for important uses.
I thank the Minister, but first, I congratulate the noble Lords, Lord Sikka and Lord Lancaster, on their excellent maiden speeches today. They have both demonstrated the contribution they will be able to make to this House—the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, on financial and tax matters and the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster, on defence matters. I must say I am really looking forward to the contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster, to fireworks and rebellion; put those together and I think that might be something I would encourage him to take part in in your Lordships’ House. While I may have contrary views to both noble Lords, they have shown they will be able to add a great deal to the richness of our debates and considerations.
I am also grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate today. What has been amply demonstrated by the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, and others is that these regulations have great significance to the way we conduct planning activity. My noble friend Lord Greaves, the noble Baronesses, Lady Bakewell, Lady Jones and Lady Uddin, and other noble Lords have shown how the needs of local communities, as well as broader needs, are not reflected in the measures.
Brownfield sites and design quality have been raised by the noble Lord, Lord Herbert, and he was critical of the tiered system of legislation to come. I look forward to his contributions in that debate when we have it—because there will be debate. A significant part of the reason for this debate today is that we have not been offered that opportunity before.
The noble Lord, Lord Crisp, and others raised significant concerns about the extension in the use of permitted development rights and also that these procedures do not lead to well-designed additional affordable homes, a point raised and reinforced by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and my noble friend Lady Thornhill, who also joined in the criticism but emphasised the financial model that drives new homes and called for review and evaluation. My noble friend Greaves pointed out the lack of consultation on these measures—another process issue, which is one of the reasons I brought this Motion in the first place.
As noted by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, 90% of planning permissions for housing being approved and a million homes that have been given planning permission and not yet built demonstrates to me that it is not the planning system that is at fault but the system of delivering homes. I hope the Minister will reflect further on this as we consider the primary legislation of the planning Bill, which is soon to come.
I was hopeful that the constitutional element of this debate would be answered by the Minister, for whom I have a great deal of respect, given his previous service to local government. The head legislation, the primary legislation, which gives authority over these regulations is 30 years old, and clearly, as planning and community needs have altered, updating is important. The fundamental question remains: why were these regulations not rolled into the primary legislation the Government are proposing?
I note there has not been wild enthusiasm from contributors to the debate for the detail of these proposals, but scrutiny, evaluation and debate would have informed and improved these plans. Although I am grateful for the response from the Minister, he has not answered that fundamental issue. However, as we will have many opportunities to debate these matters further, I do not intend to press my Motion.
Timber and Timber Products and FLEGT (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020
Motion to Approve
My Lords, this instrument amends the Timber and Timber Products and FLEGT (EU Exit) Regulations 2018—SI 2018/1025—on the trade in timber and timber products, also known as the 2018 exit regulations.
This instrument is for purposes relating to the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol and to address deficiencies that have arisen since the 2018 exit regulations were made. This is considered a reserved policy. We have worked with the devolved Administrations on this instrument. The technical amendments in this instrument address deficiencies that have arisen since the 2018 exit regulations were made and, in addition, relate to the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol. The minor amendments contained in this instrument will ensure that the regulations for the trade in legally harvested timber will operate effectively in the United Kingdom. I make it clear that all the amendments introduced by this instrument are technical operability amendments and do not introduce any policy changes.
The timber regulation and FLEGT licensing regulations address the issue of illegally harvested timber through two measures. On the supply side, the FLEGT regulations provide for a licensing regime with countries which have entered into a partnership agreement, allowing them to issue licences that prove legality of harvest. On the demand side, the timber regulation prohibits the placing on the market of illegally harvested timber and requires businesses to exercise due diligence on timber to ensure its legality.
Illegal logging is a significant driver of deforestation, leading to a dramatic decline in biodiversity and the loss of critical ecosystems services. Deforestation is also a major contributor to climate change. It directly affects rural communities that rely on forests for livelihoods and results in revenue loss to Governments and legitimate businesses. The timber regulation and FLEGT licensing system are therefore vital tools in preventing the trade in this timber.
The instrument’s main purpose is to make amendments to the 2018 exit regulations to facilitate operability within the context of the Northern Ireland protocol. This is achieved by substituting, in several instances, “the Community” and “the United Kingdom”, with “Great Britain”. There are several instances in which reference to “the United Kingdom” is retained from the 2018 regulations. This is to do three things.
First, as a FLEGT voluntary partnership agreement is defined as being constituted between two states or regional organisations, the reference must be to the United Kingdom for this to be correct. Secondly, for the purposes of the UK timber regulation, it defines the market on which timber is placed as the United Kingdom. If this market were to be defined as Great Britain it would have the effect of imposing the obligation to exercise due diligence on businesses importing timber from Northern Ireland to England, Scotland or Wales. This would represent a new check on goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain and so the definition of the United Kingdom is retained. The third retention of United Kingdom is in relation to monitoring organisations. These are approved businesses which are able to offer access to their due diligence systems to those placing timber on the market. The regulations set out requirements in relation to where businesses must be legally established in order to be able to apply to be a monitoring organisation. If this area were to be defined as Great Britain it would preclude businesses in Northern Ireland from being able to apply to be a monitoring organisation under the UK regulations. As such, the definition of the United Kingdom has been retained.
The instrument also amends the dates when the first reports on the UK timber and FLEGT regulations are required. This is to ensure that there is an appropriate amount of time between the implementation of the regulations and the first report being produced. If this were not amended, the first report would be due just three months after the regulation comes into force. It also corrects a typographical error in the 2018 exit regulations by changing “in” to “by” in relation to sanctions imposed by the United Kingdom on timber imports or exports. It also amends the reporting period for the FLEGT regulation to a calendar rather than a financial year to bring it in line with other reporting schedules. This amendment was necessary to deal with an amendment to the EU regulations made after our 2018 exit SI. Finally, this instrument substitutes “IP completion”—the implementation period—for “exit” in the context of the date at which existing monitoring organisations established in the United Kingdom will retain recognition. This change is simply to correct a deficiency that has arisen since the 2018 exit regulations.
The instrument has always been intended for the affirmative procedure. It went through the JCSI without comment. This instrument was not subject to consultation, as it does not alter existing policy. In line with published guidance, there is no need to conduct an impact assessment for this instrument. This is because no, or no significant, impact on the private or voluntary sector is foreseen as this instrument relates to maintenance of existing regulatory standards and the cost of any direct impact from this instrument falls under £5 million. The territorial extent of this instrument is the United Kingdom. This is considered a reserved policy. The devolved Administrations were engaged in the development of the instrument and are content.
The Office for Product Safety & Standards, part of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, is the delivery body for the regulations and will continue in this role for both Northern Ireland and Great Britain. It has been involved in the development of this instrument and has no concerns in relation to implementation or resources. Its expertise in the enforcement of the regulations and its history of working with businesses to understand and meet their obligations will ensure a consistent and transparent transition.
The UK has a long and proud history of work in this area and the Government’s 25-year environment plan has made clear our commitment to support and protect international forests. This regulation will ensure that we can continue to protect valuable global resources, safeguard the livelihoods of some of the world’s most vulnerable people and contribute to tackling climate change. I beg to move.
This regulation applies to timber harvested in the EU and third countries. It imposes obligations on those who place timber or timber products plus those who sell or buy these goods in the course of commercial activity. The traders must not place illegally harvested timber—
My Lords, although there was no debate in 2018 when these regulations were transposed into UK law, we really should not take it that this is an unimportant issue. The UK is the second-largest importer of timber in the world, so the issue affects a lot of companies. Moreover, as the Minister said, deforestation and forest degradation are responsible for a significant amount of biodiversity loss and 11% of our greenhouse gas emissions. It therefore poses a serious threat to the health of our planet.
We supported the transposition in 2018 of the EU law which prohibited the sale of illegally harvested timber, and we supported the approach which imposes a due diligence obligation on companies. I take this opportunity to welcome the Government’s consultation and their commitment to introducing a due diligence obligation on companies using other commodities associated with deforestation, such as soya, palm oil and cocoa. It was a Liberal Democrat manifesto commitment to introduce such a due diligence obligation, and I called again, in a debate which I led in the House in March, for the Government to introduce such a due diligence obligation in the Environment Bill. Now that the Government have completed their consultation, I hope very much that they will be in a position to do just that.
This specific SI deals mainly with addressing the implications of the Northern Ireland protocol and the fact that EU timber regulations will continue to apply in Northern Ireland, unlike in England, Scotland and Wales. I had a number of questions about the monitoring organisations that timber companies in Northern Ireland would use and I sent them to officials in advance of today’s debate, saying that I would be extremely grateful if they could respond before today. Sadly, they were unable to answer the questions at that point, so I shall repeat them now.
Do these regulations mean that Northern Ireland companies can use only the monitoring organisations on the approved and published EU list? The list is an integral part of the EU regulations. Given that we will come out of the European Union on 31 December, will UK monitoring organisations be removed from the list, therefore requiring companies in Northern Ireland to use monitoring organisations from elsewhere in Europe? The officials have responded that they will clarify with the European Commission whether that is the case.
It is a very important issue because most timber companies in the UK, including in Northern Ireland, are small and medium-sized companies and very few of them have their own due diligence obligations, so they will require monitoring organisations to undertake that function for them. As it stands now, no organisations in Northern Ireland are able to undertake that function. Let us be clear about it: there are only 13 such organisations in the whole of Europe, so it is not likely that a new one will be set up quickly in Northern Ireland. I do not oppose this statutory instrument but think we should put on record that it will undoubtedly bring further uncertainty to timber companies in Northern Ireland, post Brexit.
I shall close my remarks on the issue of the enforcement of these environmental regulations. At the weekend, the “Countryfile” programme on the BBC highlighted the cuts to budgets for environmental enforcement resources and programmes here in the UK. It was disappointing that no one from Defra was prepared to go on to that programme to comment. The enforcement of these regulations falls, as the Minister said, to the Office for Product Safety and Standards. It is not an insignificant responsibility and I hope the Minister can reassure us that that body—it is a unit in BEIS—will have sufficient resources to ensure that the regulations will be properly enforced to ensure that there is no lessening in our commitment to tackling problems of deforestation.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his explanation of this revised SI. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, for her contribution and very helpful questions. Obviously, we are keen to have in place a robust and comprehensive licensing scheme for the import of timber. As the noble Lord and the noble Baroness said, we are all too well aware of the devastation that can be caused by illegal logging on biodiversity and global attempts to mitigate the impact of the climate change emergency. It is good that the EU has taken a stand on this and it is important that we replicate the provision when we leave the EU.
The Explanatory Memorandum makes clear that the EU has entered into a number of voluntary partnership agreements with certain countries to implement a licensing scheme. Does the Minister believe that this licensing scheme is sufficiently widespread to cover all potential timber-exporting countries we might deal with in the future, or is it the UK’s ambition to expand the reach of these licensing agreements so that other countries become partners with us? If the EU makes new or improved licensing agreements after we leave the EU, is it the UK’s intention to mirror those new agreements in UK law as well?
The Explanatory Memorandum also makes clear that it is necessary to have slightly different provisions for Great Britain and Northern Ireland to respect the terms of the Northern Ireland protocol. It says that any voluntary partnership agreement entered into with a third country by the Government will automatically be extended to Northern Ireland, even though Northern Ireland will technically be subject to the EU regulations. So, following on from my earlier question, if the UK entered into a new agreement with a country that does not have an equivalent agreement with the EU, could the Minister clarify what impact this would have on Northern Ireland and the flow of cross-border trade on the island of Ireland?
Finally, I return to the vexed question of errors—and I am sorry to return to this issue. It is interesting that I call them “errors” and the Minister calls them “deficiencies”—we could argue on the head of a pin about the difference. Either way, when we debated the INSPIRE (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations on 9 September—which also was correcting a number of errors—I asked the Minister what lessons the department had learned from these recurrent mistakes and what processes had been put in place to overcome them. At the time, the Minister chose not to respond to those questions, so I am giving him the opportunity to address them today. Could he perhaps also write to me with the total number of Defra EU exit SIs that have already come into effect only for errors to be identified and revisions needing to be made? I raise the issue now because, as the Minister will know, we have a heavy couple of months ahead, with hundreds of pages of SIs still to be considered. The last thing that we want to be doing is correcting previous mistakes on top of that. Perhaps the Minister could therefore tell us what improved checks have been put in place to avoid that. I look forward to his response.
I thank noble Lords who have contributed—or tried to contribute—to this debate today. The Timber and Timber Products and FLEGT (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020 make no change to the existing policy to tackle the trade in illegally harvested timber. The Government’s 25-year environment plan sets out our continued commitment to protecting and restoring the world’s forests and to supporting sustainable agriculture. This instrument will ensure that we have the operable regulations we need to address this.
I begin by acknowledging the attempts by the noble Lord, Lord Bhatia, to contribute to the debate. I am afraid that I was not able to pick up on any of the questions or comments that he raised. I invite him to write to me after this sitting and I shall do my best to provide a written response to him on whatever issues he was planning on raising.
I appreciate very much the kind sentiments and support which the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, expressed for this measure and for other measures that the Government are introducing against illegal forestry. This clearly is an important issue. The UK is a significant importer of timber and other forest products. As we know, deforestation contributes approximately 25% or 26%—although some put the figure at 30%—of the emissions that are contributing to climate change, as well as undermining the world’s biodiversity, contributing to the extraordinary levels of biodiversity loss that we have seen in recent years. It is also undermining those who depend most directly on forests; up to 1 billion people depend on forests for their livelihood. Deforestation is a global issue and a high priority.
I also thank the noble Baroness for acknowledging the work being conducted to extend the due diligence on timber and timber products to commodities. As she said, the Government have just finished consulting on measures that will introduce due diligence requirements on bigger businesses to ensure that, as they import commodities, they are not also importing illegal deforestation. The Government will respond to the consultation soon, but we are keen to avoid overlapping this regime with the timber regulations that we are discussing today. Timber and timber products are not in the scope of our current due diligence on proposals for forest-risk commodities. Our intention is to build an alliance of countries around the world—north, south, east, west; producer, consumer, rich and poor—committed to doing similar on commodities, with the view that we can theoretically flip the market in favour of forests being worth more alive than dead. It matters.
The noble Baroness asked whether we would, in any sense, end up in a weaker position on illegally harvested timber following the introduction of this SI. The answer is no. The UK timber regulation FLEGT replicates the EU regulations, so there is no reduction in any sense—of scope, application or enforcement. It makes no change to policy whatsoever. Our 25-year environment plan sets out our ambition to support and protect the world’s forests, not just to expand our own, as well as to support sustainable agriculture and work towards zero-deforestation supply chains. Our commitment in this area remains absolutely undimmed.
The noble Baroness raised questions on the situation in Northern Ireland following the passage of this instrument. As she said, officials are not yet able to provide a forensic answer to the question she raised. However, we will clearly have to, and will. We are in the process of resolving a number of operational issues with the European Commission and will clarify whether Northern Ireland companies importing timber can use only monitoring organisations on the approved and published EU list, and if Northern Ireland businesses will have to find other monitoring organisations from elsewhere in the EU. A monitoring organisation based in Northern Ireland would be able to operate in both Great Britain, under our regulations, and Northern Ireland, based on the technical notice.
The noble Baroness also asked whether the OPSS would be sufficiently resourced and whether I can provide that reassurance. I am happy to provide it: the regulatory body for Northern Ireland is the same organisation, the OPSS, and will be sufficiently resourced to undertake its duties in both Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
I move on to questions from and comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones. I also thank her for her remarks, as this is important. She celebrated the stand the European Union has taken on this issue, and I join her in doing so. This is important legislation; I add only that the UK took a leading role in helping to craft it from the outset. A lot of the work that we are funding through what was the Department for International Development, and is now part of the FCDO, is enabling and helping producer countries to comply with those regulations. The UK Department for International Development, as it then was, worked closely with Indonesia, which is the first country to achieve recognised status, with considerable investment on our part. This investment is now being mirrored in other countries. I fully agree that this is a pioneering move by the European Union, and the UK can take credit for having driven this process through and ensuring that it is sufficient and, indeed, radical.
The noble Baroness asked whether our ambition for VPAs is sufficiently widespread. I think that was her question. It is worth saying that the countries that have signed VPAs with the EU so far include Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Ghana, Indonesia, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Vietnam. As I said, Indonesia was the first to reach the milestone of FLEGT licensing. VPAs with Guyana and Honduras have been initiated, and the countries currently negotiating VPAs are Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Laos, Malaysia and Thailand.
As I said, the function of this instrument is to make minor amendments to the Timber and Timber Products and FLEGT (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations. As such, the replication of VPAs is not within its scope. We will be laying a separate instrument in January 2021 related to the FLEGT licensing scheme in Indonesia. This will list Indonesia as a partner country, which will allow Indonesian licences to be accepted under FLEGT regulations. Needless to say, our ambition is to ensure that, in due course, the global timber trade is covered by these or similar regulatory protections.
The noble Baroness asked me how many EU exit SIs have had to return as a consequence of errors. She will probably not be surprised to hear that I do not know or have the answer to that question. However, I will write to her and provide an answer. I will let her know exactly how many there are and include, in my response, the steps taken by the department to minimise the risk of such errors being repeated over the next few months. I hope I covered all the questions that were raised. If I did not, I apologise.
There was one question I was not clear on, which is what will happen if, post January, the EU and UK diverge on voluntary agreements. I was thinking of the impact on Northern Ireland if the UK and EU were to have separate voluntary agreements with different countries. Was that envisaged or did we always intend to follow the EU’s lead on this?
I thank the noble Baroness for the question. Our ambition on this issue is no less than that of the European Union. We will clearly have to work together and fully intend to. This instrument does not change the 2018 exit regulations on which VPA applies in Northern Ireland, so the effect is that the UK VPA would apply. We are working on ensuring the operability of the agreement in Northern Ireland, alongside the protocols. There are questions that remain unanswered, but those discussions are happily with our European Union colleagues. There do not seem to be issues there that we will struggle to resolve, but discussions will need to continue for the foreseeable future.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, hybrid proceedings will now resume. Some Members are here in the Chamber, respecting social distancing, others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. If the capacity of the Chamber is exceeded, I will immediately adjourn the House.
We come now to the Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Bill. I will call Members to speak in the order listed in the annexe to today’s list. Members are not permitted to intervene spontaneously, and the Chair calls each speaker. Interventions during speeches or before a noble Lord sits down are not permitted. During the debate on each group, I invite Members, including those in the Chamber, to email the clerk if they wish to speak after the Minister. I will call Members to speak in order of request and will call the Minister to reply each time. The groupings are binding and it will not be possible to de-group an amendment for separate debate. A Member intending to press an amendment already debated to a Division should have given notice during the debate. Leave should be given to withdraw amendments and, when putting a Question, I will collect voices in the Chamber only. If a Member taking part remotely intends to trigger a Division, they should make this clear when speaking on the group.
Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Bill
Relevant document: 25th Report from the Delegated Powers Committee
Clause 1: Up-rating of state pension and certain other benefits following review in tax year 2020-21
1: Clause 1, page 1, leave out lines 11 to 16 and insert “must lay before Parliament the draft of an order which increases each of the amounts referred to in subsection (1) above by a percentage no less than—
(a) the difference between the general level of earnings at the beginning of the period under review and the general level of earnings at the end of that period,(b) the difference between the general level of prices at the beginning of the period under review and the general level of prices at the end of that period, or(c) 2.5%,whichever is the greater.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would probe whether the relevant benefits for the tax year 2020-21 should be up-rated in line with the “triple lock” of the higher of increases in prices, increases in earnings or 2.5%.
My Lords, this is nothing more than a probing amendment to clarify the Government’s thinking. There is a commitment that the Government will uprate pensions and other benefits in line with practice. However, the economic situation may not trigger that increase via the triple lock and so we do not know what will happen. Without it being stated that that will automatically be in place through the triple lock, we do not know quite what the Government’s intentions are for this year. And what happens next year? What is going on? Some information on the Government’s ongoing intentions would help here.
In the middle of the coronavirus crisis, we sometimes forget that there will probably be a world afterwards. I am not sure whether this is being glass-half-full on this occasion, but are we committed to the triple-lock or something like it? We should look at this issue, or at least pay half an eye to it, because of generational fairness, which is the idea floating at the back of this debate. This Government, and others, I hope, must ask: are we going to continue to make sure that the basic pension is enough to live on and will be a little more than it is now in the future? That might encourage people to buy in.
I look forward to the Minister’s reply and thank her for pointing out before I rose to my feet, with her devastating and scything charm, the slight change to my explanatory statement, in which I originally got the wrong year. I seek the Government’s thinking on this. It is an opportunity for the Minister to provide clarity on the process that will apply if the economic situation does not respond in line with the legislation. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Addington, for his explanation of the amendment and echo his request for some clarity from my noble friend the Minister. Is she able to give us an idea of the Government’s thinking on the future uprating of pensions?
Clause 1, before proposed subsection (2A), relates to the basic pension and the standard minimum guarantee. At the moment, the triple lock does not apply to the standard minimum guarantee and pension credit. Were the amendment to be inserted, it would ensure that the poorest pensioners, who are normally those we might wish to protect the most, would get the benefit of the full triple lock. The overall issue on which I should like clarification from my noble friend is whether she can give us an idea of the Government’s thinking on the 2.5% element of the triple lock. Is that likely to continue in the light of what is happening in the rest of the economy? If so, is there any thinking within the department on ensuring that the pension credit is also uprated by the full 2.5%?
I congratulate my noble friend on pointing out what I was going to mention about the relevant 2021-22 tax year. The thrust of this probing amendment is of interest to the Committee and I look forward to her response.
My Lords, I too welcome the amendment of my noble friend Lord Addington. We are all interested to hear the Government’s thinking, particularly on the future of the triple lock. I am sure that we all welcome their commitment to the undertakings in their manifesto and are pleased to see the Bill. However, in recent months, a lot of doubt have been shared regarding the triple lock’s future. Some people have said to me that there seems to be an almost systematic picking at the seams of the triple lock. With the Chancellor under pressure due to the economic implications of the pandemic, we would like some reassurance from the Minister that the Government are committed to ensuring that the pension keeps its value.
The state pension is particularly important to give the poorest pensioners confidence. Everyone is suffering under the pandemic but there is no doubt that the poorest are suffering worst. We would like to know the Government’s thinking for the future. Will there be a commitment in the Bill to keep the 2.5%, as well as transparency and clarity to reassure those pensioners who are particularly dependent on the state pension? I look forward to the Minister’s reply.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Addington, for explaining what his amendment would do, and to other noble Lords who have spoken in pursuit of clarity. The noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, raised the issue of the uprating of pension credit and the standard minimum guarantee in particular. I will return to that in more detail when I move my Amendment 3 shortly.
The Bill is permissive rather than prescriptive. The Explanatory Notes say that it will
“allow the Government to meet its commitment to the Triple Lock.”
At Second Reading, the Minister was invited by many noble Lords to tell the House if it was indeed the Government’s intention to increase the state pension in line with the triple lock, but she simply repeated the formula that the Bill
“will allow the Government to maintain their manifesto commitment to the triple lock.”—[Official Report, 13/10/20; col. GC 309.]
Had she been able to go further, she might have obviated the need for much of the debate we are having at the moment.
The Minister was also asked at Second Reading whether the Government intended to stand by the manifesto commitment to the triple lock for the rest of this Parliament. As the noble Baroness, Lady Janke, pointed out, there have been various rumours and briefings swirling around that have cast some doubt on the future of the triple lock. But answer came there none.
I realise that the Minister is in a difficult position. She probably thinks it unreasonable of us to ask her to answer these questions because the decisions are not hers, but she speaks for the Government in this House. We are being asked to fast-track this Bill to enable the governing party to fulfil a manifesto commitment, although the Government will not tell us whether they are going to fulfil it. It does not seem unreasonable to ask for a bit more clarity. I look forward to her reply.